Written by Kevin Jennings
Technology does a lot to increase the quality of life for all mankind. That’s not to say that everyone has it easy, but technology does its best to at least make us all a little more comfortable. Everything from automobiles, modern medicine, and nuclear power, all the way down to indoor plumbing and easy strike matches has made our lives better. Most of these things are such a fundamental part of daily life that we don’t even give them a second though.
But perhaps we should. The Earth is a big place full of massive amounts of various elements, but those amounts are still limited. There are many technologies we as a civilization have grown accustomed to that may not be able to stick around forever. It is important to note that all of the things we’re going to talk about today are the subject of some debate.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” That’s not necessarily true as there are manmade islands and the coast of Manhattan has been expanded since Mark Twain was alive, but the one thing they aren’t making any more of is space.
That may not be entirely true either as the most widely accepted model of the universe shows it constantly expanding. But the one thing they truly aren’t making more of is the space directly surrounding Earth where satellites and other objects can fly in low Earth orbit.
We rarely if ever think about them, but satellites are a huge part of our daily lives. The GPS on your phone uses satellites to find your location. Airplanes use satellites to communicate with air traffic control. Weather stations use satellites to incorrect guess whether or not it will rain tomorrow. There are a lot of satellites performing a lot of tasks, but there’s only so much room orbiting the Earth in which to fit all of these.
First proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, Kessler Syndrome is a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit is so high that that a collision between two objects creates a cascading effect resulting in more collisions until humanity is trapped on earth by a cloud of space debris that could take centuries to be pulled back towards Earth on its own and that would make launching further satellites or spacecraft impossible.
The cause does not have to be two satellites colliding, either. There is plenty of “space junk” already orbiting Earth. Clouds of debris from satellites that have been destroyed in anti-satellite missile tests, broken off pieces of orbiting machines, and components of spacecraft ejected during launch already circle the Earth. When these piece of debris collide with another satellite, it can have catastrophic consequences.
Even for objects of only 1 kilogram, the amount of energy resulting from orbital speeds is immense. One megajoule is the kinetic energy of a one ton truck driving into you at 100 miles per hour. A collision between a satellite and a small piece of space debris would be tens of thousands of megajoules of kinetic energy. This would destroy the satellite, thus making more debris and increasing the chances of even more collisions.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. Now, only 65 years later, some scientific models are claiming that Kessler syndrome has already begun. It won’t be an instantaneous process, possibly taking as much as a century for the cascade of collisions to play out. Of course, with new satellites constantly being launched, the process could be accelerated.
Is Kessler Syndrome is already in its early stages, the first order of business is to find a way to remove the space debris orbiting our planet. This is much easier said than done, and while organizations have been tracking as many as 35,000 piece of space debris, so far tracking them in the hopes of avoiding more collisions is the only solution we have. There are many proposals to deal with the debris, but they will all be costly, take time to implement, and are still theoretical.
Once that problem can be sorted out, the second order of business should probably be to inform Elon Musk that we don’t need 10,000 more Spacelink satellites thrown into orbit, as is the current plan of SpaceX. Fortunately, the Spacelink satellites are designed to crash themselves back to Earth at the end of their lives, but since the existing satellites are all relatively new, we have yet to see whether or not that will actually happen.
Airbags and MRI Machines
Airbags and MRI machines could not seem more different, but there’s something they share in common that the Earth could be running out of: helium. Helium is a unique element with an interesting history, and it is used in far more things than most people realize.
Helium is the second lightest element and the first noble gas. The noble gases are elements that are extremely stable on their own, generally not reacting with other elements except when under extreme circumstances. Because there are a lot of times we don’t want chemical reactions to take place, helium is frequently the perfect choice for the occasion.
On Earth, helium is extremely rare and is mostly a non-renewable resource. The helium that exists on Earth is underground trapped in pockets of natural gas, and is the result of thousands of years of radiation breaking down heavier elements, with helium being one of the byproducts. Because this is an ongoing process that does mean there is more helium being created, just incredibly slowly.
Because it is so light, helium also has a nasty habit of leaving the planet. While the even lighter hydrogen atoms will also float off into the air, they are highly reactive and will bond with other elements. For example they might bond with oxygen atoms to create water that falls back to Earth. Helium on the other hand is nonreactive, so it simply floats to the top of the atmosphere and is blown away by solar winds.
So if helium is so rare, why is it so cheap that we can use it to fill party balloons? Blame the United States. Helium first began being mined by the United States In 1915. They built up a massive reserve of the gas, and actually passed legislation banning private companies from mining or storing helium. As the decades went on, they decided that the monopoly was no longer necessary and the ban was lifted in the 1960s.
With more companies mining helium and the price so low, in 1996 Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act that mandated they sell off all of the helium reserves by 2015 in order to recoup some of the costs of mining it in the first place. It all had to be sold, regardless of the price.
The uses for helium had begun to balloon, but this law remained in place. Because the US government had so much of the rare element to sell, the price remained extremely low due to the flood of supply outstripping demand. In 2013 Congress finally passed a new bill aimed at maintaining the government’s helium reserves, but the market was already flooded with cheap helium. With the price of helium remaining depressed for so long, most people never stopped to consider it could actually be a limited commodity.
Some estimates state that we could run out of helium in the next 25-30 years, barring technological advancements. Though it does fortunately turn out there is more helium left than we expected, mostly trapped in groundwater, we currently have no way to extract it. If we do run out, there’s a lot of technology that’s going to need to change.
MRI machines use liquid helium to cool the magnets. Hadron colliders do as well, but that’s less of a concern for the average citizen. Airbags are filled with helium because the gas diffuses so quickly, and is not combustible like hydrogen. Arc welders use helium as a shielding gas. Barcode scanners at grocery stores use helium-neon lasers. Fiber-optic internet cables have to be constructed in helium environments to ensure no air bubbles get trapped in the wires. The gas can even be used to help treat asthma and emphysema.
The list of uses of helium goes on and on. Of course, for many of these applications there may be alternatives. Likewise, new technologies and techniques could be developed where the use of helium is no longer necessary. Still, if there’s anything we learned from the Hindenburg thanks to the US refusing to sell helium to the Germans, it’s that just because we can find a substitution for helium doesn’t mean it will be a good idea.
This one is obviously going to come with a major caveat, but we’ll get to that. The importance of fossil fuels in everyday life cannot be understated. Traditional cars, buses, and planes all run on fossil fuels. Oil and its byproducts are also used to make fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, waxes, medicines, and more. Unfortunately, according to British Petroleum’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy, if absolutely nothing changes, the world could run out of oil in 2067.
But there is a very big but here. Civilization has been imminently running out of oil for the past 70 years. Despite this, the reason we have yet to actually run out is because of that phrase, “if absolutely nothing changes”. Every previous prediction regarding the depletion of oil was based on the current technology. It was generally known in these situations that more oil existed, it was just either deeper than we had the ability to drill, trapped in ways that we did not have the technology to extract it, or would be too expensive to extract to justify given whatever the current price per barrel was.
We currently don’t know if there is more oil than the previous study cited, but we also don’t know that there isn’t. Drill down far enough, and it’s possible that someone could find a reserve of hundreds of billions of gallons of fossil fuels. Or there could be nothing. Fortunately, even if more oil isn’t found, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to run out.
There have been major pushes away from fossil fuels for environmental reasons. Electric cars are becoming more popular, coal plants are being replaced by nuclear plants, and there’s even jet fuel in development that won’t use fossil fuels at all. Even for gas burning cars, efforts have been made to make them more fuel efficient both for the environment and to make them more appealing to consumers as the price of gas increases.
As our reliance on fossil fuels decreases in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives, the fear of running out of oil will also decrease. We have also seen time and again that predictions were made about the end of fossil fuels, only for billions of barrels of oil to be discovered. As such, there is the chance these predictions won’t amount to anything.
However, fossil fuels truly are a nonrenewable resource. We can’t make more of them, and seeing as we use it by setting it on fire, that takes recycling out of the equation as well. If we continue to use it, we will eventually run out. Will we run out in 2067? If society is able to continue to trend away from its reliance on oil, then almost certainly not. Still, thus far the story of fossil fuel depletion has been a lot like the boy who cried wolf, but eventually that wolf really did come.
Smartphones and Computers
We end today’s list with another controversial entry. There is a lot of debate surrounding the actual availability of the 30 or so elements that are used to make smartphones, many of which are also used in computer microchips, LCD screens, and a myriad of other electronics.
Much of the debate surrounding this focuses too heavily on the “rare earth metals”. The name for these elements is derived from the fact that they were rarely found in quantities large enough to mine, more often being dispersed among other elements in the ground. However, the name is a complete misnomer as the elements are not rare at all, but rather some of the most common. One particularly pessimistic study claimed that, at current consumption rates, we could run out the rare earth metals by as early as 2850.
Because of the incongruity between their name and the actual rarity of these elements, many examinations into the future of microchip resources don’t go much further than that. However, there are six elements used in smartphones and computers that are projected to run out within the next 100 years, or sooner if our demand keeps increasing at the rate that it is. These elements are indium, tanatalum, arsenic, yttrium, gallium, and silver.
Silver is a particularly interesting element on that list as the world’s mines aren’t expected to run out until 2240, but peak production levels are expected to terminate extremely soon. It is projected that somewhere between 2028-2037, silver production will dramatically decline as what remains of the silver reserves will be much too difficult to extract at a rate that meets demand. As this happens, demand for silver from precious metal investors will also be competing with industry demand, as silver has seen significant periods of outperforming gold in recent years.
There are a few major factors leading to the depletion of these six resources. The first is obviously increased demand. If it exists, we’re finding a way to put microchips in it. Why buy a boring refrigerator when you can have a smart refrigerator?
The other two main factors both relate to recycling. To start, most of these devices weren’t built with recycling in mind. The quantities of these elements used per device are very small, so attempting to recycle a single microchip to extract the silver and yttrium isn’t viable. You would need to be working with massive quantities of discarded electronics to be able to attempt to justify trying to extract the rare elements from their components.
The other issue is that people generally don’t want to recycle their old devices. Maybe someone wants to keep their old smartphone as a backup, just in case. Because the old device can still run games and apps on wifi even when the phone service has switched to the newer upgrade, owners may want to keep it to use for those as well. And of course, with both smartphones and computers there is the fear of privacy.
With so much of today’s commerce being done digitally, no one would want to turn in an old phone for recycling only to discover that someone was able to recover all of their passwords and financial data off of it first.
Currently, there are two main solutions to try to stem this depletion of precious resources. The first is to encourage more recycling of devices, as the more devices are recycled the more viable the recycling process becomes. The second is to encourage designers to focus on building electronics with the intent for them to be repaired rather than just recycled or replaced.
Of course, we can all do our part to help by agreeing we don’t need to buy the latest model iPhone every single year.