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Tech resource woes won't be solved with Afghan minerals

Taleban not sitting on an enormous laptop battery

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As one column in the Times pointed out, the North Sea has $240bn worth of gold in it (yes, there is gold in seawater). That doesn't make the North Sea worth $240bn, as you'd have to spend some $2.4 trillion in getting the gold out. (Yes, it does cost about ten times more to get gold out of seawater than the gold you get out of seawater is worth.)

So why issue the report at all? What's the point?

The point is probably that last year they tried to have an auction for some of that iron ore and no one turned up. They'd like to try this again and so would like to get a little bit of interest. Leaking a “report” to the New York Times might help, although anyone actually in the mining business will know all of the above already.

The second possible point is, as long as I'm not being too complicated about this (or crediting them with too much intelligence), to fire a shot across the bows of Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia. The press release (which is perhaps what we really ought to call this report) contains several references to large deposits of lithium. Some reports have claimed that Afghanistan can become the “Saudi Arabia” of lithium as we all ramp up for battery driven cars - each battery requiring a decent lump of said metal, lithium. The current major supplier is Chile from some dried up lakes (you can get table salt from sea water if you dry it out, you can get magnesium from some others like the Dead Sea if you dry it out, some already dried out lakes, looking a little like the Bonneville salt flats, are full of lithium) but the biggest known reserves are over the border in Bolivia. And Morales has been saying that he's not going to just sell off the minerals, oh no. The processing into products has to happen in Bolivia as well. There have been mutterings that the cars themselves, not just the batteries or metal, should be produced up there at 12,000 feet above sea level.

Claiming that there's a new Saudi Arabia of lithium is just the thing needed to put the lippy bloke in control of the last Saudi Arabia of lithium back into his box. I almost wish that I had sufficient confidence in the intelligence of the US Intelligence Services to actually believe that to be true.

So, all in all, it seems unlikely that Afghanistan is going to become a mining camp real soon. Even if it did there's nothing up there worth $1 trillion, or anywhere near.

Zooming in from the other end of the stupidity spectrum though (this is the spectrum of possible stupidities, not the spectrum that moves from ignorance to knowledge) we have a report from the European Union. Rather than being about having found lots of lovely metals it's about where EU based companies can get hold of lots of lovely metals.

The first and most obvious thing that should alarm us is that the writers of the report really do believe that it's part of statecraft to make sure that manufacturers are able to get their raw materials. This is a very 19th century conception and very much the one that led to all those colonies. Got to take control of those places full of little brown buggers, eh? Where else would we get our rubber from, what? We've thankfully spent the last half-century abandoning that odd idea and concentrated rather on offering the natives lots of money instead. It's not only fairer but works out cheaper too. But let's not say that the EU cannot do things the traditional way when they put their minds to it.

Perhaps more alarmingly, they seem not to know the basics of the metals they are talking about. Tantalum is important for mobile phones, yes, but it simply isn't true that the majority comes from the Congo. Brazil, Australia and Canada provide the vast majority and if we're going to be predicating our policies on the idea that these places aren't going to supply us then we really are planning for some insane form of Fortress Europe.

Rare earths are indeed mostly produced in China, but as I've pointed out here before they're not actually rare (or earths). The rarity is in plant capable of processing and separating them, a problem we can solve with a bit of cash and a few hundred thousand tonnes of acids. Worrying about antimony seems very strange: the major source is from recycling lead car batteries and the technology has changed recently. We put calcium in new ones, not antimony, meaning that as we process through the old ones from the fleet we're building a store of antimony.

Similarly they complain that most gallium comes from China. So? It's extracted from the wastes of the Bayer process (bauxite to alumina) and we can bolt a capture circuit onto any of the 30 of western world ones of those and be getting gallium by Thursday teatime.

Their worries over germanium seem similarly odd. Johnson Matthey used to have a plant in Cheshire (back in the 50s) which extracted both gallium and germanium from coal fumes. More recent pollution worries have meant that we're doing much the same at each and every coal fired plant these days. We precipitate out the metals content from the smoke and end up with tens of millions of tonnes a year of flue dust. This would make a very fine ore if anyone actually wanted more germanium. (I know of one mine, admittedly in Vorkuta, beyond the Arctic Circle, where there is 1kg of germanium in each tonne of coal. It's worth more possibly as germanium ore than it is as coal.)

As with the first report this second one seems to have been written by people who simply don't know what they're talking about. At least with the first one we can see why they're touting it about. The reason for the second is more difficult to ascertain.

Perhaps it really is just true that we're ruled by the ignorant? ®

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