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Discovery of New Natural Resources?


Q: We often read and hear about the depletion of our natural resources. How likely is it that we are able to discover new natural resources anytime soon?

In the past, humans have been able to discover and exploit "new" natural resources, possibly especially at times when other resources had become depleted. After all, in the early days the oceans were considered an obstacle, but humans evolved and learned later on that it was a well of resources. Or, another example: While uranium has been around for centuries, or even millennia, it took a long time before we figured out how to use it to create light and energy. So if the history of natural resources is full of discoveries, what does that say about the future?

From Mr Marco Visscher (February 2010)


Dr David Jenkins

Reply by Dr David Jenkins

I am definitely a resource "optimist".

The most important component of our present life style is energy. The ultimate source of energy is the Sun. You can treat that as an infinite resource. Fossil fuels are examples of prior organic conversion of the sun's energy. We will never run out of fossil fuels, but as they become more expensive their price will rise and make it economically worthwhile to look for altenatives.

Oil is the resource people worry about most. But in the future if the demand is there it could be made from the conversion of natural gas and then coal. Liquid petroleum can also be made biologically. We've only just begun to consider how to convert organic material to fuel.

Electricity is our most vital energy medium. There are many options for its generation. Again think of the Sun as the ultimate resource. Discovering how to convert the Sun's incoming energy directly to electricity is humanity's technical challenge. But meanwhile there are many indirect processes and materials available. You mention nuclear. Again this a field where we are still at the beginning of what's possible. After Uranium we can use Thorium and perhaps ultimately Fusion technology rather than Fission. But by then technological advances may have made the direct conversion of sunlight cheaper. Remember it will always be all about economics.

As for materials and can the planetary store of these support the demands of a 9 billion population? My answer would be yes. There is still immense scope for further discovery, exploitation, recycling and reuse.

The real resource challenges to humanity this millenium will be geo-political, but that is a different question.