Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Metals

Preface. I was fortunate enough to know Walter for 15 years. He became a friend and mentor, helping me learn to become a better science writer, and sending me material I might be interested in, and delightful pictures of him sitting in a lawn chair and feeding wild deer who weren’t afraid of him. I thought his book Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals, published in 1997, was the best overview of energy and natural resources ever written, and encouraged him to write a second edition. He did try, but he spent so much time taking care of his ill wife, that he died before finishing it. I’ve made eight posts of just a few topics from the version that was in progress when he died at 96 years old in 2018 (500 pages).

Other Youngquist Geodestinies Posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy“, 2021, Springer; “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer; Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Even if crude oil is obtained from wells or at natural oil seeps as occur many places in the world (almost all major oil fields exhibit oil seeps), it still has relatively few applications in its unprocessed form. When technology is applied and the crude oil is put through a refinery, and these refined products are further processed, the end result is literally thousands of items that make for better living worldwide.

Similar situations exist with the metals. Iron is an example. Occurring very rarely in natural form, iron was first discovered in meteorites. Swords fashioned from this hard material were called “swords of heaven” and very highly prized in battle. Because of the high melting point of iron, the metallurgy was discovered and developed at a rather late date. But, finally, what had been huge deposits of unusable iron ore in many parts of the world became valuable resources to be exploited. After the discovery that iron could be extracted from previously worthless rocks, it was further discovered that the addition of vanadium, chromium, tungsten, molybdenum, and other minor metals gave iron a variety of valuable properties, producing alloys for many important specialized purposes.


U.S., the world’s largest producer of nuclear energy, contributing 20 percent of its electric power, consumes 60 million pounds of uranium per year but produces only two million. Worldwide, the shortfall for existing reactors is about 100 million pounds per year. With more than 50 additional nuclear plants planned worldwide, including some in the U.S., the supply of uranium reserves in the ground will last substantially less than the 40 years projected. Taking everything into consideration, the expanded long-term anticipated future for uranium in world energy supply appears to be unfounded, unless reprocessing of existing uranium supplies can be successfully accomplished on a significant scale. So far this seems unlikely.

In a comprehensive study of world uranium reserves, the German-based Energy Watch Group issued a 2006 paper in which they questioned the long-term availability of uranium to fuel nuclear reactors. The study also adds perspective on near-term maintenance of current nuclear power capacity based on the estimated useful life of the operating reactors and their age. Their conclusions: Any forecast of the development of nuclear power in the next 25 years has to concentrate on two aspects, the supply of uranium and the addition of new reactor capacity. At least within this time horizon, neither nuclear breeding reactors nor thorium reactors will play a significant role because of the long lead times for their development and market penetration.

Just to maintain the present reactor capacity will require the completion of 15-20 new reactors per year.

The U.S. is more dependent on uranium imports than oil.  Demands for “energy independence” are frequently heard from politicians and others who may endorse nuclear power as one of the means to such an end. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign, Senator McCain urged immediate construction of 40 nuclear plants (to add to the 104 now in the U.S.) and suggested 100 more nuclear plants for the longer term as a road to energy independence. In citing nuclear plants, which produce electricity, to aid in the solution of the oil problem, the senator ignored the fact that only about two percent of electricity is currently generated using oil as fuel.

Eighty-five percent of U.S. uranium supplies must be imported, compared with about 50 percent of our oil. Increasing uranium as a fuel source would only increase our foreign fuel supply dependence. And that dependence is not likely to decrease, as prospects for large new discoveries of uranium seem unlikely in the already thoroughly explored United States. I worked for a year on this very problem, retained by an oil company seeking to diversify its energy base away from oil. The company eventually abandoned the project, because prospecting for uranium in the United States did not appear to be a significantly worthwhile investment.


Copper was extensively mined by early people in the Sinai Desert, and later on Cyprus (Poss, 1975). The deposits on Cyprus were so highly valued that war followed war in bloody contests for the metal.

Copper was the first metal employed as a shaped weapon in Old World warfare. Copper ores are relatively easy to smelt, so copper metallurgy developed early and copper became the first metal to be used extensively by several cultures. Its use marked an important transition from the long Stone Age into the age of metals.

In modern times, without copper the development of our highly electrified civilization might not have been possible, or at least considerably delayed, for copper has been the first and primary workhorse of the electric industry. Copper has the highest electrical conductivity of any metal, except gold and silver. It is now being partially displaced by aluminum, and glass fibers. However, the production of aluminum depends on vast amounts of electricity produced by copper coil-wound generators, and initially transmitted by copper wire to the aluminum smelters. Without copper, we might still be reading by candlelight or oil lamps.

adding tin to copper it would make it a much harder metal. Along with copper its use continues to serve us in various ways. The first true bronze with enough tin to indicate that the tin was an intentional addition to the copper appears about 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (Poss, 1975).

the Romans made extensive use of the copper/tin mixture to produce numerous bronze weapons

Although iron was known far before Roman times, it had only limited use, because the metallurgy of iron is difficult due to the high temperature required to smelt it.

The copper mining industry survives in modest form in southwestern United States, but other countries are now the dominant producers, notably Chile and Peru.

Copper and the electric age. About the time the steel business was booming, the electrical age was dawning. The electric motor had been invented about 1854. In 1879, Thomas Edison produced the first usable electric light, and visualized lighting cities. But how could electric current be transmitted to lamps for use in the home, offices, and factories, and to the motors that could replace so much of the hand labor in the factory?

Again, geology favored the U.S. with deposits of large native copper deposits, some of the richest known in the world, on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. These deposits were mined to meet the demands of the electric age. Copper became the workhorse of the electrical industry. Upper Michigan, located not far from the industrial East and Midwest where much of the copper was used, produced huge amounts of this most useful metal. And it was inexpensive native copper. One mine struck a deposit of pure solid copper about 50 feet long with an average thickness of about 14 feet, weighing more than 500 tons. The copper, being so malleable, could not be blasted out, but instead had to be cut into small pieces. This procedure was economical because the mass was almost pure copper requiring little smelting and refining.

That it was not pure copper was also fortunate because the impurity it contained was silver. Silver is an even better electric conductor than copper, so the wires made from the Michigan copper with its silver content were superior in transmission performance.

Michigan copper was made into thousands of miles of wire that carried electric power to homes and factories. It made the workday more pleasant and efficient, and domestic life brighter. Copper wire carrying electricity allowed factories to operate three shifts a day instead of one. Copper greatly increased the productivity of the American economy.

In the 1830s, Samuel Morse established his telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore. Copper telegraph wires soon spanned large areas of the nation, first running along railroad tracks, and then spreading out and connecting many otherwise isolated communities with the outside world. Telephones began to appear, and copper wires were available to put this most useful instrument into many places. Business and industry greatly benefited by this communication system. All this was facilitated by the abundant rich copper deposits in Michigan, which could be developed at just the right time to promote the electrical age in the United States in all its many and varied useful forms. It should be noted that the Michigan copper deposits fed far more money into the American economy than did all the gold from the California gold rush.


The first record of iron being employed was 1450 B.C., and about 1385 B.C. the Hittites manufactured a substantial number of weapons from iron.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution that there was large demand for metals. Earlier, economies were largely agricultural. Rich, fertile land and fresh water were the resource prizes.

In the nineteenth century, Britain was successively the world’s largest source of coal, iron, lead, tin, and copper. During that time it was the wealthiest nation in the world and supplied more than half the world’s demand for some of these metals. From 1700 to 1850 Britain mined more than 50 percent of the world’s lead, and from 1820 to 1840 produced 45 percent of the world’s copper. From 1850 to 1890 Britain increased iron production from one-third to one-half of the entire world supply (Lovering, 1943).

The richest iron ore deposits then known in the world were discovered in the Mesabi Range of northeastern Minnesota. The large, local lower-grade taconite deposits had been fractured, weathered, and leached of worthless rock material leaving behind the mineral hematite, which is 60 percent iron. These rich iron ores were easily and economically connected with the two other main ingredients for making steel, high-grade coal and limestone, by the fortunate geography of the Great Lakes region. Iron ore could be brought down first by rail (downhill, an economically important fact for the transport of heavy iron ore) to Lake Superior. From there, cheap water transport moved the ore to steel mills in Chicago where the first American steel rails were rolled in 1865, and also to the Pittsburgh area — which also became a steel producing center — adjacent to the rich Pennsylvania coal fields. Both areas had abundant coal and limestone to combine with iron ore to produce iron and steel.

In the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, the rich hematite (iron) ore has been exhausted, but very large quantities of lower-grade ore called taconite remain. This low-grade ore is crushed, and the iron content particles are separated and concentrated into pellets, and then shipped to steel mills. The uniform iron content of the pellets compensates in part for the lower-grade ore by allowing blast-furnace operations to be more efficient than when using raw but somewhat variable quality higher-grade ores. Despite competition from foreign high-grade ores, technology partially compensates for the depletion of the high-grade ores of Minnesota. This enables that area to continue being a competitive source of iron ore, although iron mining is substantially reduced from what it once was.

The blast furnaces around Chicago, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh produced it. American steel production was only 20,000 tons in 1867. But by 1895, it surpassed the British production of six million tons, and reached 10 million tons annually before 1900. Ultimately, a large steel network of rails stretched from coast to coast, an impossible task were it not for the great iron ore deposits, which had been discovered and developed on such a timely basis.

Steel also built the factories and machines with which more goods were produced. The railroads efficiently distributed the manufactured products such as steel farm implements for the pioneers breaking sod in the Midwest and the Great Plains. The railroad brought needed equipment and supplies to miners and ranchers of the mountain regions, and to the growing settlements on the West Coast, previously supplied mainly by ships, which had to go all the way around the southern tip of South America, rounding the treacherous Cape Horn.

Steel made the world’s first skyscraper possible. After the great Chicago fire of 1871, large areas of the city needed to be rebuilt. An architect named William Jenney demonstrated that walls of buildings were no longer needed for bearing the weight of the structure. Rather, with abundant and relatively cheap steel available, he could build a steel frame to act as the skeleton of the building. Using lighter weight materials, the structure could be walled in. Thus the first skyscraper was erected, the 10-story Home Insurance Building finished in 1885. It was such a success that two more stories were added later. The giant steel mills came into being because of the rich iron ore deposits of the Mesabi Range, which built the great railroad network, and provided the structural steel to build the huge complexes of office buildings and factories we know today.

The highways on which civilization moves in a literal sense, are made either of concrete (limestone and sand and gravel with some gypsum and clay) or asphalt (from an oil well) with crushed rocks mixed in for durability. An average asphalt road is about 10% tar. Without the tar, it would just be gravel road.

Our houses—since they first became a reasonably comfortable place with space heating and indoor plumbing—come largely out of mines. Surely, indoor plumbing alone was a major advance in civilization, especially in cold climates! The house foundation is probably of concrete, which is made from limestone, clay, sand, and gravel. The exterior walls may be made of stone or brick (clay). The insulation may be glass wool (quartz sand, feldspar, and trona—a sodium carbonate which is mined). The lumber is put together with screws and nails of steel and zinc. The wallboard that forms the interior walls of many homes is made chiefly of gypsum. The roof is probably covered with asphalt shingles. The asphalt came out of an oil well, and the filler in the asphalt shingles is a variety of colored silicate minerals. The fireplace is brick or stone with a steel fire box. The sewer pipe is made of clay or iron pipe or may be plastic from material out of an oil well. The electrical wiring is copper. Plumbing pipes are copper; fixtures are brass (copper and zinc) or stainless steel (nickel and chrome with iron). Roof gutters are galvanized steel (iron and zinc) or plastic from an oil or gas well. The various paints are derived from petroleum. Windows are glass made primarily from quartz sand. Doorknobs, locks, and hinges are of brass (copper and zinc) or steel (alloy of iron). It is truly said, “If it can’t be grown, it must be mined.” And finally the mortgage, if not written on newsprint, is written on quality paper made from wood or cloth fibers and filled with clay.

Iron ore deposits in Canada, Liberia, Brazil, and Australia now dominate the world supply. With little domestic aluminum ore (bauxite), the U.S. imports most of its ore from Jamaica and Australia and a few other places.


Gold was the first metal used by humans as it is bright and attractive in the native (pure) form, in which it commonly occurs. It can easily be worked into many shapes and does not tarnish. Gold nuggets in stream beds attracted attention very early.

The finding of gold in Australia, as in California, had a profound effect on the nation’s economy, and would do so in other parts of the world where gold was soon to be discovered: New Zealand, South Africa, and Alaska. The gold rushes, wherever they occurred, brought new settlers, new ideas, new vigor, and created new wealth. Without the enormous amounts of gold that were produced in the latter half of the nineteenth century the commerce of the modern world could never have reached the proportions that it has today. Only after the gold rushes was it possible to speak of something called world trade.

More recently the Siberian city of Norilsk has been built 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Temperatures there reach -40ºF and for two months there is no sunlight. Minerals are the only reason for the city, which is situated on what is probably the richest ore body in the world. It contains an estimated 35 percent of the world’s nickel, 10 percent of its copper, 14 percent of its cobalt, 55 percent of its palladium, and 20 percent of its platinum. The mine, even without additional discoveries, can continue to produce at the present rate for at least 40 years. The city will be home to the mines’ 155,000 employees and their families far into the twenty-first century.

In Colorado, an uninhabited broad upland valley in a few short months became Cripple Creek, which grew from a population of 15 people in 1891 to 50,000 by 1900. Similar growth occurred in several other areas of Colorado where gold was discovered, such as Central City.

In 1829, gold was discovered in what became the town of Dahlonega in northern Georgia and a new gold rush was on. Some of the land involved was Cherokee Indian territory, but with the influx of gold miners, the demand for the land grew and ultimately the Cherokees lost out. In 1835, the Cherokees were forced to give up all their lands east of the Mississippi River and ordered to move westward along the Trail of Tears. However, about 14,000 refused to leave, and in 1838 were forced out militarily. Some 4,000 died during their expulsion. The cause of this displacement was the discovery of gold.

The Sioux knew there were gold deposits in the Black Hills and had shown specimens of it to Father De Smet before Custer’s soldiers found it in French Creek (Wolle, 1953). Although the area had been set aside by the government for the Native Americans, this was ignored when news of the gold discovery spread, and miners flocked in. The initial discovery of gold in French Creek was on Native American land, which by the terms of the treaty of 1868 was off limits to white settlement. But miners persisted, and when restrictions were lifted during the years of 1875-1876, 11,000 miners entered the Black Hills. This invasion led the Sioux to resist and resulted in the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn where General Custer and his men were massacred on June 25, 1876. By September of that year, however, the Sioux were forced to sign a treaty giving up the Black Hills. Gold led to the expulsion of the Sioux.

All across the West, Native Americans came into conflict with the miners and had to give up territory. This resulted in a great weakening of their economic and political positions and with destruction of what had been a sustainable, albeit primitive, way of life.

The Yukon and Alaska gold rush of 1897-1898 was the last great gold rush of the nineteenth century, but it had all the excitement and problems of previous gold rushes, and it, too, opened up virgin territory. It had its origin when two prospectors, Robert Henderson and George Carmack, were salmon fishing in the Klondike River, a tributary of the Yukon River in far northwestern Canada. These men saw the glint of gold in the stream bed late in the summer of 1896, but news of the discovery did not get out until 1897. The Klondike Gold Rush was then on.

The town of Valdez at the head of Prince William Sound was a little fishing village until the Alaska gold rush started. Although it was not the shortest route to the goldfields, it was a route that did not cross into Canada and therefore avoided border inspection. Twenty- thousand people flooded into Valdez. In a few years the gold was minded out, and by the 1930s the population was fell to about five hundred. The population remained small until it was determined that the Trans Alaska Pipeline would terminate at Valdez, and once again Valdez boomed. Now, with the steady work the pipeline terminal affords, the population of Valdez has settled to about 4,000. Thus Valdez has seen two major bursts of population growth, one caused by gold and one by oil. And after oil?

Just as minerals move people into areas, exhaustion of these deposits may cause an outward migration. Many ghost towns in the western United States as well as in other parts of the world are grim testimony to the fact that minerals are a one-crop resource. The complete economic cycle is the discovery, development, and then decline and exhaustion of the one-time mineral crop. People move into developing mineral resource areas. Then, as the mineral base gradually declines, people move out. There are examples of this in partially abandoned mining towns, and the decline of once rich oil-producing areas. This can be seen even now in parts of the one-time oil producing giant, Texas

Gold rushes are a strikingly visible demonstration of how minerals move people and make for romantic history. Far more people have moved because of the availability of new lands with fertile topsoil to cultivate. Unlike the one-crop minerals and energy minerals, properly managed soil brings a crop year after year so people move in and stay.

Silver was discovered in many areas of the ancient world, but in one particular area, it played an important role affecting the course of Western Civilization. In the limestone hills near the town of Laurium, and also near the village of Plaka, about 30 miles northeast of Athens, large deposits of silver were discovered. For many years, Athens and Greek culture flourished in part because of the wealth taken from these mines. Each citizen of Athens was given an annual share of this treasure recovered at great effort and loss of life by thousands of slaves working in the mines.

Many specialty metals are very important in war. For example, magnesium is used in flares to illuminate enemy positions. Without cobalt and vanadium, the jet engine would be impossible. Molybdenum is a particularly useful metal employed in equipment of war as well as in civilian uses such as automobile sheet steel. It makes steel tough, rather than brittle. Without it, neither the ships and guns of the navy, nor the tanks and guns of the army, could be built.

Levi Strauss was a poor immigrant in New York. He made tents out of canvas material. His brother went to California during the gold rush and enthusiastically wrote back to Levi that there was great demand for tents for the miners. But by the time Levi arrived in California, the demand for tents had fallen off. Instead, there was a great need for durable work pants, which could also be made from heavy tent-like material, denim, with which Levi worked. Levi Strauss set up his factory in San Francisco that still supplies Levi’s to the world — a legacy, in a sense, from the California gold rush.

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One Response to Walter Youngquist: Geodestinies Metals

  1. Arnold Brown says:

    Hello Energyskeptic,

    Truly enjoy the website. I came across a very useful website tracking shale oil production. Perhaps this will be useful as you track the possibility that we have already reached peak global oil production. Cheers.

    Here is the twitter profile:

    Here is the latest article that is quite interesting projecting future oil production coming out of Eagle Ford (projected continued decline):

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