When Science and Economic Theory Meet

What is a natural resource? Turns out, this is a little trickier than one (me, for example) might suppose. I was foolish enough for years (hey, I was born and raised in California, cut me some slack) to think natural resources were just *there*, just things people found – and used up. Therefore, all the Malthusian and Ehrlichian doom-saying made sense to me, at least on some level: we were going to use everything up! Then we’d starve! My push back was along the lines of asserting that we were using things up much slower than feared, and using them more efficiently so that we needed less of any given resource over time.

But that, while not entirely wrong, misses the point: things become resources when human ingenuity is applied to the stuff in the natural world. Rocks became a resource once people picked them up and started mashing seeds and clobbering tapirs with them; wood became a resource when people started making spears and building fires; petroleum became a resource (and saved the sperm whale) once somebody figured out you could cook kerosene out of it and light your lamp.

And it’s not a one-time thing – raw materials can become resources many times in different ways. Iron might have first accidentally become a resource as part of a stone tool; then, in itself, as cast iron; then rare and hard to get steel as people figured out how to control the carbon content; then as mass produced steel once Bessemer and friends worked out the blast furnace concept, then as an ingredient in specialty steel alloys. But iron was always there, the raw ingredient for both plowshares and Winchesters, right under the feet of men hunting with stone tools.

Thus, the constant in resources is and always has been human ingenuity. Resources people fought and died over in one age are ignored in the next, while the Pennsylvanian farmers who cursed the seeping oil in their fields in one generation might be oil barons in a decade or two. 

I bring this up because of some news from the material science front: graphene is cool. While we carbon-based life forms have been surrounded by and living with carbon non-stop for eons, only in 2003 was somebody able to create the single-layer chicken wire lattice structure that is graphene.

Now it turns out that graphene might be useful in improving battery and solar cell efficiency and in separating hydrogen out of the atmosphere.  Assuming this pans out – a big assumption at this point – all of the sudden, it seems we may have created new resources out of, at least on the hydrogen front, thin air.

The best case full-ride experience here would be that graphene provides much better solar energy collection, much better energy storage, and makes fuel cell technology not only feasible but ubiquitous. In fact, if the whole hydrogen gathering thing pans out, the solar cells and batteries will end up as footnotes. My sci fi imagination sees sails of graphene wedded to a thin power generation layer popping up everywhere, generating as much power as any home or business needs just so long as there’s water vapor in the atmosphere – and there should be, since the burning of hydrogen creates water.

Clean abundant energy on demand anywhere you need it. While it seems optimistic, we live in a land where anyone can buy steel in any number of forms for tiny amounts of money – imagine how this would look to the Zulu master metal workers of 2,000 years ago, who spent hours and hours of back-breaking labor and burned a small forest in order to get a couple pounds of steel. So there’s precedent.

Now, if graphene could be used to desalinate seawater, just about every cause for war (reasonable, material causes, at least) would cease. Then again, even using current desalination technology, if you have enough energy, it would work.

Happy New Year!

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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