The modern world cannot exist without these four materials

The modern world cannot exist without these four materials

MModern societies would be impossible without the large-scale production of many man-made materials. We could have an affluent civilization that provides plenty of food, material comforts, and access to good education and health care without any microchips or personal computers: we had one until the 1970s, and we succeeded, until the 1990s, to develop economies, to build the necessary infrastructures and to connect the world by airliners without smartphones or social networks. But we could not enjoy our quality of life without the provision of many materials necessary to embody the myriad of our inventions.

Four materials rank highest on the scale of necessity, forming what I have called the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics and ammonia are needed in greater quantities than other essential inputs. The world today produces approximately 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, nearly 400 million tons of plastics and 180 million tons of ammonia each year. But it is ammonia that deserves first place as our most important material: its synthesis is the basis of all nitrogen fertilizers, and without their applications it would be impossible to feed, at present levels, nearly half of today’s nearly 8 billion people.

Dependence is even higher in the most populous country in the world: the diet of three out of five Chinese depends on the synthesis of this compound. This dependence easily justifies calling the synthesis of ammonia the most important technical advance in history: other inventions ensure our comfort, our convenience or our wealth or extend our lives, but without the synthesis of ammonia, we could not ensure the very survival of billions of people alive today and yet to be born.

Plastics are a large group of man-made organic materials whose common quality is that they can be molded into desired shapes – and they are now everywhere. As I type this the keys on my Dell laptop and a wireless mouse under my right palm are made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, I’m sitting in a swivel chair covered in polyester fabric and its nylon wheels rest on a protective polycarbonate mat that covers a polyester mat. But plastics are now indispensable in healthcare in general and in hospitals in particular. From now on, life begins (in maternity wards) and ends (in intensive care units) surrounded by plastic objects made mainly of different types of PVC: flexible tubes (for feeding patients, providing oxygen and blood pressure control), catheters, intravenous containers, blood bags, sterile packaging, trays and bedpans, bedpans and bed rails, thermal blankets.

The strength, durability and versatility of steel determine the appearance of modern civilization and enable its most fundamental functions. It is the most widely used metal and it forms countless visible and invisible critical components of modern civilization, from skyscrapers to scalpels. Additionally, nearly every other metallic and non-metallic product we use has been mined, processed, shaped, finished, and distributed with steel tools and machinery, and no mode of mass transportation today could function without steel. The average car contains around 900 kilograms of steel and before Covid-19 hit the world was making almost 100 million vehicles a year.

Cement is, of course, the key component of concrete: combined with sand, gravel and water, it is the most massively deployed material. Modern cities are embodiments of concrete, as are bridges, tunnels, roads, dams, tracks and ports. China today produces more than half of the world’s cement, and in recent years it has produced in just two years as much as the United States during the entire 20th century. Another astonishing statistic is that the world today consumes more cement in one year than during the entire first half of the 20th century.

And these four materials, so dissimilar in their properties and qualities, share three common traits: they are not easily replaceable by other materials (certainly not in the near future or on a global scale); we will need many more in the future; and their large-scale production relies heavily on burning fossil fuels, making them major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Organic fertilizers cannot replace synthetic ammonia: their low nitrogen content and their global mass are not enough even if all fertilizers and crop residues have been recycled. No other material offers such benefits for many lightweight yet durable uses as plastics. No other metal is as strong and affordable as steel. No other mass-produced material is as suitable for building solid infrastructure as concrete (often reinforced with steel).

Regarding future needs, high-income countries could reduce their fertilizer use (eat less meat, waste less), and China and India, the two big users, could also reduce their excessive fertilizer applications. fertilizer, but Africa, the continent’s fastest-growing population, remains starved of fertilizer even though it is already a major food importer. Any hope for greater food self-sufficiency rests on increased nitrogen use: after all, the continent’s recent ammonia consumption has been less than a third of the European average. More plastics will be needed for expanding medical (aging populations) and infrastructural (pipes) uses and in transportation (see interiors of airplanes and high-speed trains). As is the case with ammonia, steel consumption must increase in all low-income countries with underdeveloped infrastructure and transportation. And a lot more cement will be needed to make concrete: rich countries to repair decaying infrastructure (in the United States, all sectors where concrete dominates, including dams, roads and aviation get a D grade in national technical assessments), in low-income countries to expand cities, sewers and transport.

Additionally, the ongoing transition to renewable energy will require huge amounts of steel, concrete and plastics. No structure is a more obvious symbol of “green” electricity generation than large wind turbines, but their foundations are reinforced concrete, their towers, nacelles and rotors are steel, and their massive blades are energy-intensive and difficult to recycle: plastic resins. , and all these giant parts have to be brought to the installation sites by oversized trucks (or ships) and erected by large steel cranes, and the turbine gearboxes have to be lubricated repeatedly with oil. These turbines would only produce true green electricity if all these materials were made without any fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels remain essential to produce all these materials.

Ammonia synthesis uses natural gas both as a source of hydrogen and as a source of energy needed to provide high temperature and pressure. About 85% of all plastics are based on single molecules derived from natural gas and crude oil, and hydrocarbons also provide energy for syntheses. Primary steel production begins with the smelting of iron ore in a blast furnace in the presence of coal coke and with the addition of natural gas, and the resulting pig iron is turned into steel in large basic oxygen furnaces. And cement is produced by heating crushed limestone and clay, shale in large kilns, long tilted metal cylinders, heated with poor quality fossil fuels such as coal dust, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil.

As a result, the global production of these four indispensable materials represents around 17% of the total annual global energy supply and generates around 25% of all CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. The pervasiveness of this dependency and its scale make decarbonizing the four material pillars of modern civilization particularly difficult: replacing fossil fuels in their production will be much more difficult and expensive than producing more electricity from renewable conversions (mainly wind and solar). Eventually, new processes will take over, but there are currently no immediately deployable alternatives to displace much of the existing global capabilities: developing them will take time.

Ammonia synthesis and steel smelting could both be based on hydrogen rather than natural gas and coke. We know how to do this, but it will be some time before we can produce hundreds of millions of tons of green hydrogen derived from the electrolysis of water using wind or solar electricity (virtually all the hydrogen today is derived from natural gas and coal). . The best prediction is that green hydrogen would provide 2% of global energy consumption by 2030, well below the hundreds of millions of tons that will eventually be needed to decarbonize ammonia and steel production. In contrast, decarbonization of cement production can only go so far by using waste and biomass, and new processes need to be developed and commercialized to make cement CO2-free. Similarly, there is no simple way to decarbonize plastic production, and measures will range from plant-based feedstocks to more recycling and substitutions with other materials.

And beyond these four hardware pillars, new power-intensive hardware dependencies are emerging and electric cars are the best example. A typical lithium car battery weighing about 450 kilograms contains about 11 kilograms of lithium, nearly 14 kilograms of cobalt, 27 kilograms of nickel, over 40 kilograms of copper and 50 kilograms of graphite, as well as about 181 kilograms of steel, aluminum and plastic. Supplying these materials for a single vehicle requires the processing of approximately 40 tons of ores, and given the low concentration of many elements in their ores, it requires the mining and processing of approximately 225 tons of raw materials . And an aggressive electrification of road transport would soon require multiplying these needs by tens of millions of units per year!

Modern economies will always be tied to massive flows of materials, be it ammonia-based fertilizers to feed the ever-growing world population; the plastics, steel and cement needed for new tools, machines, structures and infrastructure; or new inputs needed to produce solar cells, wind turbines, electric cars and storage batteries. And as long as all the energy used to extract and transform these materials comes from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in the production of these much-needed materials. No AI design, no app, no future “dematerialization” claim will change that.

Adapted from HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS by Vaclav Smil, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Vaclav Smil.

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