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By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

China, The Canary in the Coal Mine

By Jeff Danner Posted March 16, 2014 at 8:26 pm

When I started writing Common Science in 2011, I did not envision devoting so many columns to resource constraint issues. However, every time I listen to the news or read the paper I am assaulted with warning signs of rapidly approaching resource scarcity issues. Many of these stories are set in China. Let me give you some examples.

In my column iPads, Priuses, and Neodymium, I discussed the growing importance of rare earth metals(1) in electronic devices and advanced battery technologies. Deposits of these valuable metals are few and far between. Any reasonable assessment of the situation suggests that supplies of these key metals are soon going to become tight. China, which currently controls over 80% of the world market for rare earth metals, has apparently reached this conclusion and is preparing. In September of 2013, China purchased 10,000 tons of rare earths to bolster its strategic metals reserve. In January of 2014, the largest mining company in China purchased nine rare earth mining companies from Mongolia, further consolidating their grip on world supply.

Last year, I wrote a five part series on food in which I discussed how land supply and land degradation was imperiling global supply. In December of 2013, the Chinese government declared that eight million acres of farmland were unsuitable for farming due to pollution of the soil by heavy metals.(2) For reference, this is approximately the size of the state of Maryland. Unofficial estimates suggest that the amount of polluted farmland may be as much as 60 million acres, which is about the size of Missouri. It’s difficult to know for sure, because the Chinese government has declared the results of the soil tests to be a state secret. The process of polluting farmland with heavy metals occurs in two steps. First, a local water source is polluted by run-off from nearby mining operations or by spills of coal ash into the water (like the recent incident at the Duke Energy facility in Eden, NC). Next, the metal-laden water is sprayed on the fields. The water is then either used by the plants or it evaporates, leaving the metal atoms behind. Crops grown on polluted fields will absorb some of these metals, making them hazardous for human consumption.

Last November, in It’s the Extraction, Not the Emissions, That Matters, I explained how continued reliance on coal-fired electric power plants was causing the rate of accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to continue to grow. Any hope that this trend may reverse is being thwarted by projects such as the Ningdong Coal Base currently being constructed in China. When completed later in this decade, Ningdong will cover nearly 400 square miles. To help you conceive of the enormity of that, Orange County, NC has an area of 401 square miles. I find it hard to imagine a coal plant that large. When fully operational, Ningdong is projected to emit over 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. In 2013, the entire country of China emitted only 8 billion tons. When I express pessimism with regard to climate change, it is motivated by stories such as this one.

To keep this column from getting away from me, I’ll leave out the sections on the fact that southwestern China no longer has any bees, so people are trying to pollinate their crops by hand, and that the South-to-North Water Diversion Project has the two largest canals ever built by human beings.

I plan to move away from resource scarcity columns over the coming weeks to address some other Common Science topics. But you never know what I am going to see in the news that will distract me. For example, as I was working on this column I saw a headline about declining plankton populations in the oceans. Now I’m curious.

Have a comment or question? Use the interface below or send me an email to commonscience@chapelboro.com.

(1) There are 17 rare earth metals, each having unique properties. Examples include neodymium, which is used in touch screens and hybrid car batteries; yttrium, which is used in superconductors; and scandium, which is used in aerospace components. Much of our high-tech economy is dependent on the continued availability of these metals.
(2) Heavy metals include mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and selenium. When ingested, they cause a variety of serious health problems including cancer, neurologic damage and birth defects.

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