A number of years ago, Dr Ugo Bardi published a very thought-provoking essay about the possibility of a universal mining machine (which I’ll refer to as “Bardi’s machine” from now on). Such a machine can take any piece of earth, melt it down, atomize it, and separate it into its elements, each in its own little pile.
Such a machine would allow us to mine common dirt (or "undifferentiated crust") and obtain all the elements from it. All dirt contains at least trace amounts of all elements. Bardi's machine, therefore, would allow us to obtain all uncommon elements from common dirt, without searching for concentrated deposits of them.
The reason we would use Bardi’s universal mining machine is because we will eventually be forced to do so. Sooner or later, we will exhaust all the concentrated deposits of all the uncommon elements. At which point, only common dirt will remain. We will eventually be forced to use something like Bardi's machine to obtain all the uncommon elements, or we must forego them altogether.
The problem with mining common dirt is that it takes so much energy to do so. Lower concentrations of ore require higher amounts of energy to mine them. The lower the concentration, the higher the energy requirement. For example, it takes 10 times as much energy to mine an ore which is only 1/10th the concentration. The problem is, the concentration of rare elements is extremely low within common dirt. As a result, it would be energetically extremely expensive to obtain a single rare element from common dirt. From Bardi’s article:
"Consider copper, again, as an example. Copper is present at concentrations of about 25 ppm in the upper crust (Wikipedia 2007). To extract copper from the undifferentiated crust, we would need to break down rock at the atomic level providing an amount of energy comparable to the energy of formation of the rock. On the average, we can take it as something of the order of 10 MJ/kg. From these data, we can estimate about 400 GJ/kg for the energy of extraction. Now, if we wanted to keep producing 15 million tons of copper per year, as we do nowadays, by extracting it from common rock, this calculation says that we would have to spend 20 times the current worldwide production of primary energy."
That is a valid point. It seems to rule out the possibility of mining undifferentiated crust.
However, one of the commenters for that article pointed out that mining undifferentiated crust would allow us to obtain all the elements at once, not just copper, for the same expenditure of energy. In other words, that expenditure of 400 GJ would yield not just 1 kg of copper, but many kilograms of many other elements also.
Bardi wisely made a concession to that point. In his subsequent book, he calculates the energy expenditure of mining undifferentiated crust while obtaining many uncommon elements thereby.
However, I wish to continue with the commenter’s line of thinking. I wish to explore the possibility of mining undifferentiated crust (dirt) and using all the elements obtained thereby, including the common elements such as iron, aluminum, silicon, oxygen, and so on. That is the purpose of this article: to explore the energetic effects of mining undifferentiated crust and using all the material obtained thereby, or at least using as much of that material as possible.
Can we mine undifferentiated crust?
If we started mining undifferentiated crust, using Bardi’s machine, then the elements emitted from it would not correspond to our needs for them. For example, almost 80% of the material emissions from Bardi’s machine would consist of silicon, oxygen, sodium, potassium, and magnesium, which only could be used for making glass, at least in those quantities. Another 18% or so of the material emissions would be common metals such as aluminum, iron (for steel), titanium, and so on. Less than 1% would be the “uncommon elements” such as copper, nickel, rare earths, and so on. We must use the elements in precisely those proportions if we wish to avoid throwing away any elements emitted from Bardi’s machine.
It’s necessary to avoid throwing away materials, because that’s what would determine how much energy would be required for Bardi’s machine, per kilogram of materials mined. If we used everything emitted from Bardi’s machine, in the proportions in which they were emitted, then the amount of energy used for mining undifferentiated crust would be 10 MJ/kg, as per Bardi’s quotation above, which is a modest amount of energy and is similar to what we use for mining today. If, on the other hand, we mine only copper from undifferentiated crust, and throw everything else away, then the energy expenditure is 400 GJ/kg, which is 40,000 times higher.
Since we wish to avoid throwing away material, we must align our mining of undifferentiated crust with our usage of materials. Presumably, only a fraction of all mining could be done using Bardi’s machines. The common elements (like aluminum and iron) would still be mined using traditional methods, so only a fraction of our mining would use Bardi’s machines. That fraction must be low enough that no materials are emitted from Bardi’s machine in greater quantities than are used by that civilization. In that manner, Bardi’s machines would displace the energy which otherwise would have been used to obtain materials for glass, steel, and so on, using traditional mining methods. We would get the common elements “for free” from Bardi’s machines, as a side effect of trying to obtain the rare ones, which would reduce the energy expenditure for mining elsewhere in the economy. As a result, the net effect of using Bardi’s machines would not increase the energy requirements for mining as a whole, at least not by very much. The advantage of using Bardi’s machine is that it would also emit small quantities of all the uncommon elements, so we would never run out of them over any time scale.
Let’s suppose that civilization has exhausted all ores and all concentrated deposits, of all rare elements, everywhere. All that remains is undifferentiated crust for uncommon elements. Also assume that civilization wishes to use Bardi’s machines as much as possible to obtain uncommon elements from that point forward. We’ll assume the civilization uses the same proportions of common elements (such as silicon, iron, and so on) as we use today.
In which case, Bardi’s machines could be used to mine all the materials for all glass produced by that civilization. Glass would be the material which was relatively most over-supplied from Bardi’s machines (almost 80% of the material emitted could only be used for making glass). As a result, if there was enough demand for all that glass from Bardi’s machines, then there would also be enough demand for all the iron, aluminum, calcium (for cement), and so on. Little material would be thrown away. All other glassmaking operations in civilization could cease, thereby saving the energy that had been expended on it. Also, some of the mining for bauxite, iron, and so on, would also be displaced by Bardi’s machines. The amount of energy used by Bardi’s machines would be on the order of 10 MJ/kg, which is not higher than civilization was already expending upon glass, aluminum, and so on.
It would be possible to make glass directly from the output of Bardi’s machines, by mixing together the necessary elements while they were still molten, and cooling the result quickly enough that glass is formed. This would displace the amount of energy used for glassmaking elsewhere in the economy, which is on the order of 15 MJ/kg of glass. Of course, we would also make some steel and some aluminum from the output of Bardi’s machines.
This strategy would reduce the amount of energy required for mining undifferentiated crust. The amount of energy for mining altogether would not be much higher than today. Furthermore, we would get all of the elements which occur in the Earth’s crust, as long as mining continued.
As a result, we could use Bardi’s machines to a limited degree, and could obtain all elements indefinitely, without ever increasing the energy we use for mining. We would just have to limit the use of Bardi's machines so that they don't produce much more of any elements than were otherwise mined.
The problem is, the amounts of uncommon elements would be emitted in fairly limited quantities. We’d never run out of uncommon elements, but the amounts produced per year of copper, nickel, and so on, would be fairly limited, assuming we don’t wish to “throw away” anything, and thereby increase the amount of energy devoted to mining intolerably.
At present, global civilization produces about 70 million tonnes of glass per year. If all that glass were produced from materials from Bardi’s machines, then the following amounts of rare elements would also be obtained:
Copper (70 megatonnes * 70ppm) = 4,900 tonnes/year
Nickel (70 megatonnes * 90ppm) = 6,300 tonnes/year
Lithium = ~1,800 tonnes/year
"Rare Earth" elements = ~20,000 tonnes/year
As a result, we would mine 0.7 grams of copper per person per year, and also 0.9 grams of nickel, worldwide, and similar or smaller amounts of all the other uncommon elements per person each year. Doing so would never require more energy than is expended on mining now. We could mine those rare elements, in those amounts, from undifferentiated crust until the sun explodes. We would never run out of them, and would never expend any more energy on mining than we do now.
As a result, our civilization could always have enough of the uncommon elements for things like smart phones, flat screen televisions, computer chips, and so on. Many of those devices use less than one gram of uncommon elements, per device. We could always mine enough materials for those purposes, even after billions of years.
We would not, however, have enough materials for “bulk” usages of uncommon elements. There are a few usages which require huge amounts of uncommon elements, and those usages would become impossible. For example, house wiring is made out of copper at present. An average house could easily have 20 kilograms of copper wiring, which would be impossible if we mine only 0.0007 kilograms of copper per person, per year. We would need to substitute more abundant elements, like aluminum for wiring in houses. We’d also need to use other substitutes for the few other “bulk” usages of uncommon elements.
However, we would never just “run out” of any element. The conclusion is that we can mine undifferentiated crust, in limited amounts. It is energetically feasible to do so. As a result, we will never run out of any element over any time period. Small amounts of all uncommon elements will always be available, at tolerable energy expense.