by Jerome a Paris
Wed Jul 6th, 2005 at 02:05:29 PM EST
Remember the great big hope to solve the twin problems of peak oil and global warming? THE miracle solution to power our cars with limitless energy - hydrogen fuel cells, literally using water to fuel our movements?
Well, besides the small issue that hydrogen is but an energy carrier which requires energy (in principle in the form of electricity) to be produced, the car makers are flagging another issue:
Carmakers gear up for the next shortage - platinum
The car industry is preparing for the day when oil wells run dry by investing billions of dollars to develop clean and efficient hydrogen-powered vehicles.
But the new fuel comes with its own built-in commodity crisis. Today's experimental hydrogen fuel cells use so much platinum that there is not enough of the precious metal to replace all the world's petrol engines.
At the current 60g or so of platinum in each fuel cell, the world's 780m cars and trucks would use 46,800 tons of the metal - just below the 47,570 tons estimated to be still in the ground. And this assumes each vehicle has only 100 horsepower
Of course, in all likelihood, carmakers will find ways to eventually reduce the quantity of platinum needed per car, and a lot of it will be recycled.
But we will keep on bumping on similar problems, foressen and unforeseen. The problems is not so much the availability of any given resource, it's the fact that we have built an economy where these resources are essentially free, beyond their pure extraction cost and some amounts of taxes, instead of being treated as rare and valuable. What is free is wasted and used without care, until it runs out, but in the meantime we have built "wealth" and "growth" and "civilisation" on it.
It's time we realised that "growth" is not a goal, but only a means to a better life for each of us (however we define it). As a means, and not a goal, it needs to be sustainable, but that's not how our world is built. We need to think about this seriously, because our current growth-driven model is now bumping against physical limits on this planet. Will we manage that transition? Will we even get past the denial stage?