The Big Four Basic Key Materials Of The Modern World

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In their latest episode of the VALUE: After Hours Podcast, Brewster, Taylor, and Carlisle discuss The Big Four Basic Key Materials Of The Modern World. Here’s an excerpt from the episode:

Jake: Now, do education. All right. This is part 3 in our understanding of the world and this is how the world really works.

Tobias: Has you had to go with financial markets? Because I’ll be interested to hear how that actually worked, too.

Jake: Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it? This segment is on understanding our material world. The first one was on energy, the second one was on food production, and this one is on four basic key materials that build our world. And those are cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Now, you might be wondering like, “Hey, what about silicone?” Or, silicone, I should say. Isn’t that what the modern world is built on? Well, Smil says that, “Billions of people could live prosperously without silicone and it’s not an existential constraint on modern civilization like these other four key ingredients.” Just to hit you with some metrics on these.

The 2019 world consumption. Four and a half billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, 370 million tons of plastic, 150 million tons of ammonia. By the way, the mass production, just to tie this back into our previous segments. The mass production of all of these depends heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels about 17% of the world’s primary energy supply goes into creating these four key ingredients and about 25% of all CO2 emissions. The modern world, again, as we’ve been saying over and over again is running on fossil fuels.

Smil says that, “Ammonia is actually the most important of all four of these,” which is a little surprising. And a lot of it is because without it, it would be impossible to feed at least 40% to 50% of the world’s eight-ish billion people. 60% of China’s agriculture is available only due to synthetic ammonia. And so, feeding basically three out of five people in China would not be possible without the production of synthetic ammonia. The global average is around 50%. This huge dependence actually justifies the claim that Haber-Bosch process, which we talked about a little bit before, which was this heating up of key ingredients that then create ammonia. Smil says that, “It’s perhaps the most momentous technical advance in history,” because it allowed our population to get so much bigger.

Let’s jump to plastics then. The synthesis of plastics is basically, you take these small molecules, and they can be bonded together into longer and longer chains and branches, and they make what are called polymers. You take these monomers and turn them into polymers. There are two key monomers, which are ethylene and propylene. They’re basically produced by heating hydrocarbon feedstocks to 750 to 950 degrees Celsius. So, again, huge carbon input to get any kind of heat like that. But their ability to mold these plastics is what makes them so valuable, because we can put them into all kinds of shapes and sizes from thin film to heavy duty pipes, super bottles that you drink out of to massive sturdy waste containers. It’s hugely valuable for us to create the form factors that we need with the thickness and the properties that allow.

Polyethylene accounts for about 20% of the global production of plastics, polypropylene is about 15%, and then polyvinyl chloride, which is PVC pipe, like you guys have heard that before, probably, that’s about 10%. Global production of plastics, 20,000 tons in 1925, 2 million tons in 1950, 150 million tons in 2000, and 370 million tons in 2019. You can see this exponential curve that’s pretty wild.

All right, steel, steel beams can bear loads that are 15 to 30 times higher than granite columns. A steel’s tensile strength is about seven times that of aluminum and its hardness is about four times. It also has a much higher melting point, which is about 1,400 degrees Celsius for steel as opposed to about 660 for aluminum.

Tobias: Does jet fuel burn that?

Jake: [laughs] All right, they are true. Let’s just keep moving here.

Tobias: [laughs]

Jake: Basically, tall buildings, bridges, radio and TV towers, electricity transmission, the big towers that we send the electricity through. Oil and gas production platforms, railroad tracks, ship poles, shipping containers, tools, machinery, boilers, nuclear reactors, oil refineries, those are essentially just a forest of steel. Of course, all the weapons, tanks, and guns, and stuff. Huge part of our world is made up of steel and it’s also actually the largest part by weight of transportation equipment. The average car contains about 900 kilograms of steel, which is about 2,000 pounds. Are we going to run out of steel? Very unlikely.

Iron, which is a huge component of steel is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust behind oxygen, silicon, and aluminum. The annual production of iron ore is about 250 billion tons. The world’s resources are in excess of 800 billion tons containing about 250 billion tons of ore. Any resource when you look at it, you can do like a resource divided by production calculation to see how much of it do we have versus how much do we produce every year. And that’s more than 300 years’ worth for steel. As opposed to oil, actually, it’s RP is 50 years currently. We’re in good shape.

Interestingly enough, recycled steel actually accounts for about 30% of the total output, 70% in the US, 40% in the EU, and only 12% in China. That could be a place where we might actually save a lot of steel production, would be in China with little bit more recycling. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that the age of it we were turning over steel from the 20th century. Total energy requirements of global steel production in 2019 was about 6% of all the energy that we harnessed.

All right, next up, concrete. Cement is this indispensable component of concrete, it’s produced by heating basically ground limestone to at least 1,400 degrees, along with some other materials in these large kilns. And so, concrete consists of about 65% to 85% of aggregates which are sands, rocks, things like that, 15% to 20% water, and then the cement is about 15% to 20% of the final mass as well. It’s been the most massively deployed material to create modern civilization. It’s hard, it’s heavy, it’s ready to withstand decades of punishment. And especially, when it’s reinforced with steel, it helps combat the fact that concrete is actually pretty weak against tension. If you twist concrete, it cracks. But if you try to compress it, it doesn’t really withstand that well.

To give you an idea, the Pantheon was completed in 126 CE. That’s 2,000 years ago and it still spans a distance greater than any other structure that’s been made of non-reinforced concrete. Pretty impressive stuff. Today’s best concrete can withstand pressures of up to 100 mega Pascals to give you an idea of how much that is. That’s the equivalent of the weight of an African bull elephant balanced on a coin sideways. So, picture an elephant pushing down on a coin, very small surface area, a lot of weight, pretty impressive.

The most massive concrete structures that we have are dams to give you a sense. The Hoover Dam required 3.4 million cubic meters of concrete and 20,000 tons of reinforcing steel. I didn’t realize this, but the Three Gorges Dam in China is 28 million cubic meters of concrete and 256,000 tons of steel. It’s almost 10x the Hoover Dam, which is pretty damn impressive. See what they did there. Annual cement in America, the consumption rose 10x from 1900 to 1928 up to 30 million tons. It tripled again by the year 2000. The peak was actually in 2005 at $128 million and now, it’s back down to about $100 million.

Now, in China in 1980, less than 80 million tons per year. By 1985, they passed the US. In 2019, the output was 2.2 billion tons. So, it’s just over half of the global total. This is an insane thing. If you take 2018 and 2019 and add them together for China’s production of some of concrete, it was the entire US 20th century total of about 4.4 billion tons. In two years, they did what we did in 100 years.

And of course, all of these rely heavily on fossil fuels as we keep beating this drum. It’s especially concerning if you’re living in a place that today has low income and is relatively unmodernized in that you have huge infrastructure needs. That’s how you’re going to get onto the modern economy with having lots of infrastructure. And basically, infrastructure comes from these four key materials. So, unclear how we’re going to be transitioning all this stuff.

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