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From Chariot to Prius: Society’s Developing Use of Resources

Photo by Mark Buckawicki

For a thousand years, Hittite chariots rolled through the Middle East, injecting the empire’s influence into what is now present-day Turkey and Syria. The Hittite Empire’s success can be largely attributed to one thing—metal resources.

Dr. Adam Simon, a geology professor at the University of Michigan, shared the past and present importance of resources to attendees of BYU’s Quey Hebrew Memorial Lecture on March 30.

“When the Hittites developed the ability to make bronze, they effectively ruled that part of the Middle East for the next thousand years,” Simon said. “It put the Hittite Empire on the map.”

According to Simon, metals of antiquity didn’t just put the Hittite Empire on the map; they are the reason we have maps.

“If you look at a map of the evolution of society and the x’s, or dots, on a map, what puts those dots on a map are resources,” Simon said.

Bronze is a combination of tin and copper, a metal stronger than what the nearby armies of the Hittites possessed. But the abundance of copper and scarcity of tin in the Middle East, forced the Hittites to expand their trading routes so that they could keep up their supply of bronze. And as the Hittites and other civilizations increased their knowledge and application of metal elements, their view of the world expanded.

“Currently, fifty thousand container ships traverse the world’s oceans. Products made in China that contain resources from South America, Africa, Asia, Utah, and Arizona all get put on ships and transported around the world,” Simon said. “It’s amazing what humans have done in a relatively short amount of time considering that two hundred years ago nobody flipped a switch.”

The impact of resources cannot be underestimated. After showing the audience images of things he and his family regularly do—e.g., listen to classical music, heat and cool their home, travel on airplanes, check their smart phones—Simon asked a question.

“But the connection is what?” Simon said. “Fundamentally, they are all resources. Embedded in those products is everything up here on this wall,” he said while pointing to a large periodic table.

The amount of elements humans use today is almost unbelievable. Take copper, for example.

“We have increased copper production over the last sixty years by more than 300 percent,” Simon said. “Why? Because, following the industrial revolution, we figured out that copper is this amazingly malleable metal that we can use to send electricity over hundreds of thousands of miles and power civilizations.”

And copper is not the only useful metal.

“We’ve figured out ways to use tin that the Hittites and Greeks could never have imagined. We [can] take tin and combine it with indium to make a tin indium alloy.”

This alloy is embedded below the screens of smartphones to physically sense the electrical conduction of fingerprints, enabling the touch-screen function of the phone.

“If you think about that—going from tin plus copper to make bronze, to tin plus indium to use a smartphone—it’s amazing,” Simon said.

With the increased consumption of resources that humans use to make Priuses, drones, Nike shoes, and iPads, one would understandably worry whether we have enough resources to maintain our consumerist lifestyles. According to Simon, if the world, for some reason, decided to stop mining copper right now, copper reserves would run out in thirty-five years.

However, the mining community and geologists show no signs of stopping.

“I want to let you know now that’s not the case,” Simon said. “Geologists . . . are really good at making sure those [reserve] values remain relatively consistent even as we increase the amount of copper and other resources that we consume.”

One hundred or even fifty years ago, many resources were mined close to the ground. But now geologists need to dig deeper and deeper to find new deposits.

“Those deposits are like needles in a haystack,” Simon said.

He and his colleagues have devoted much of their research to understanding how valuable metals and minerals become embedded in rock.

“So in order to find new deposits what do you do?” Simon asked. “You interrogate the deposits we know to try and decipher how those deposits formed”

Simon’s “interrogation” of deposits reveals important information about nature’s ability to produce large volumes of copper, gold, silver and other minerals. Producing these types of materials in areas like the Bingham Canyon Mine in Salt Lake County requires the entrapment of magma beneath the earth’s crust

“In magmatic systems with porphyry ore deposits like Bingham, there is effectively a sweet spot with respect to the partial pressure of oxygen at controlling the ability for sulfur and copper and gold to be transferred from the melt into the gas phase,” Simon said.

Although society’s consumption of resources continues to increase, the geologic community’s technology and knowledge of obtaining those resources increases with it. The process of discovery and gathering will continue.