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The scramble for elements will dominate the future, warns chemistry chief


20 September 2010

A depletion in the world's essential elements and a parallel excess of damaging chemical elements will dominate relations between countries in the future, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry  will warn later today in a speech in India. 

Dr Richard Pike will warn of an "uneasy future" caused by the problem of access to vital elements when he opens the society's first office in India, as part of the scientific charity's continuing drive to expand its international network in publishing and educational activities.

Dr Pike will highlight at the Bangalore event  the Indian government's recent rejection of plans by minerals firm Lafarge to set up a cement manufacturing plant in the Himalayas, which would have put carbon dioxide and other elements into the environment.

He will say: "Conversely, across the border in China, where RSC already has two other offices, the government clampdown on polluting antimony mines - which provide material for fire retardants - has sent global prices for that element spiralling to a record 11,000 US dollars per tonne. By comparison, weight-for-weight, crude oil is barely one-twentieth of this in terms of current market value. 

"Then again, international regulations to reduce drastically the proportion of sulphur in marine fuel oils burnt in shipping fleets across the world means there will be a global excess of this element of up to 20 million tonnes a year.

"Changes in lifestyle are also altering the demand for elements, with more meat-eating in Asia requiring increased supplies of grain for cattle, which in turn requires more fertiliser and a supply of potassium. The vigorous bidding for Canada's PotashCorp is a further manifestation of this.

"But the most dramatic threat comes from the increasing scarcity of phosphorus from conventional sources, which is also a component of agricultural  fertilisers, and is a key element in DNA, the genetic code that determines our make-up and our ability to reproduce."

At a five-nation conference, Chemical Sciences for a Sustainable Society, held in near London last week, where Dr Pike was also a speaker, scientists from UK, Germany, US, China and Japan heard that within a generation the very fabric of our existence could be constrained by this shortage, unless other sources were found.

Dr Pike will say today: "With 2011 being the International Year of Chemistry I urge the scientific and wider communities to recognise the challenges the world faces, and set the right priorities in education, research, industry and the world's political frameworks to address these."

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