Earth’s natural resources have limits in terms of availability, abundance, renewability, and carrying capacity. Although some resources are renewable, like geothermal power, trees, and the fish in the sea, many of mankind’s economic practices are exploitative and destructive, exceeding the sustainable limits of these resources.
Chemistry and other sciences can help in the protection, preservation, and efficient utilisation of natural resources. Compared to other organisms on Earth, we, modern humans, tend to adapt the environment to our needs. For example, we clear out forests to give way to roads and residential areas. Many of our activities are not environmentally sustainable, despite the comfort and convenience these activities provide.
Sustainable development is about finding a balance between technological-economic progress and the long-term use of natural resources for the benefit of humanity. It’s an ethical stance that considers the welfare of future generations as well as the environment in general.
Sustainable development is not an easy thing to achieve, especially now that human civilisation is dependent on fossil fuels on a large scale. The exponential growth of the global population in the past two centuries has largely ridden on the coattails of technological innovations; population growth has meant more consumption and more pollution. Humans always have the drive and need to consume the following:
- Energy from fossil fuels
- Building materials from forests and quarries
- Water from aquifers and other sources
- Food from agriculture, animal farming, and oceans
- Luxury item materials from endangered species (e.g. ivory from elephants)
- Technology raw materials from mining
Natural resources are sufficient for our needs but not for our greed. The Earth is estimated to be around 4.6 billion years old. Our species, Homo sapiens, has only been around for about 200,000 years, while the Industrial Age started less than 200 years ago.
If we were to compress the entire age of the Earth into 24 hours, humans have only existed for about 3.7 seconds of that time. However, despite only being here for such a short amount of time, we have radically changed the planet and consumed tremendous natural resources without giving much back to the environment.
Unlike other organisms, we produce industrial waste products that aren’t recycled efficiently back to nature. The worst part is the fact that the waste products we produce through our consumption and industrial production are detrimental to other organisms and the ecological balance of the planet as a whole. Case in point: climate change due to anthropogenic (human) activities such as burning fossil fuels and deforestation.
Water is a scarce but essential resource. In fact, some experts predict that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. It isn’t hard to imagine why this would be the case. Even today, almost a billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water. Based on a 2019 report, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) showed that about 884 million did not have safe water to drink.
In terms of surface area, more than 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. However, if the total volume of water on, in, and above the earth was gathered into a sphere, it would have a diameter of about 1,385 kilometres and a volume of only 1.4 billion cubic kilometers.
Now, compare that to the total volume of the planet, which is more than 1.083 trillion cubic kilometers. This means that the total water on the planet is only a thousandth or 0.0013% of the volume of the planet. It’s a very thin layer on the Earth’s surface, comparable to the skin of an apple in reference to the apple itself.
Of the total volume of water, only a very small fraction is usable to humans as fresh, drinkable (also known as potable) water. Usable freshwater accounts for only 0.3% of the total amount of water the planet has. The gargantuan bulk of 99.7% is in the oceans, soils, icecaps, and in the atmosphere as water vapour.
The vast majority of freshwater is found underground in the form of soil moisture and aquifers. These groundwater sources are the ones that partly feed the streams and are the main sources of potable water in homes.
Water undergoes a cycle that is primarily driven by the sun’s energy. However, the oceans remain as the major repository of water. Here’s a look at how the earth’s water is distributed:
- Ocean water: 97.2%
- Glaciers and other ice: 2.15%
- Groundwater,: 0.61%
- Freshwater lakes: 0.009%
- Inland seas: 0.008%
- Soil Moisture: 0.005%
- Atmosphere: 0.001%
- Rivers: 0.0001%
The available water for human consumption is becoming increasingly scarce as the global population increases.
Ways of Reducing the Use of Resources
All the products we use or consume, from food products to the buildings where we live or work, have their own respective lifespans and life cycles. The details of these different stages vary depending on the product, but the generalised life cycles of products can summarised as follows:
- Raw materials extraction and processing
- Product manufacturing and packaging
- Usable lifespan of the product
- Product disposal
When purchasing products, you can help in promoting sustainable development if you choose products with the lowest carbon footprint and the longest possible lifespan. You can do a simple assessment based on the details of the different stages of the life cycle of a product. Details include the chemical composition and the molecular structures of the products.
Even in identical products like mobile phones, some brands or models are more sustainable than others. For instance, you can have a relatively lower carbon footprint and negative impact on the environment if you buy durable mobile phones from companies with sustainable practices, or if you resist the temptation to buy a new model each year.
The raw materials needed for manufacturing a mobile phone are mostly non-renewable. For instance, the metal and semiconductor component raw materials need to be mined, and the plastic components are processed from petroleum products, which are also non-renewable.
Corporations and governments have the bigger responsibility of implementing sustainable practices. For example, using renewable sources of energy, like wind energy or solar energy, is a responsible choice. However, there are several political, economic and technological hurdles that should be considered.
Fertilisers can be considered as both bane and boon of sustainable development. On one hand, they help increase food production to support the population. On the other, they require enormous amounts of energy to produce, and may also cause pollution.
Fertilisers are either organic or inorganic. They contain the essential minerals and nutrients that plants need to grow and become productive in terms of food yield. Ammonia is one of the most important industrial products necessary for manufacturing fertilisers. Ammonia is manufactured using the Haber process, which is basically a reversible chemical reaction that can be summarised as:
N2(g) + 3H2(g) ⇌ 2NH3(g)
The Haber process has five stages that require iron as a catalyst:
- Nitrogen and hydrogen are pumped into pipes
- Pressure is increased to 200 atmospheres (2.027×107)
- While under pressure, the gases are heated to 450°C and squeezed through a tank that contains iron catalysts
- Ammonia is formed and cooled to liquid and then extracted
- The nitrogen and hydrogen gases that failed to react are recycled
Some of the common types of fertilisers that require ammonia as a raw material are the following:
|Ammonium phosphate||(NH4)3PO4||Nitrogen, phosphorus|
|Potassium nitrate||KNO3||Potassium, nitrogen|
The blog on chemicals.ie and everything published on it is provided as an information resource only. The blog, its authors and affiliates accept no responsibility for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from following the information provided on this website. We do not recommend using any chemical without first consulting the Material Safety Data Sheet which can be obtained from the manufacturer and following the safety advice and precautions on the product label. If you are in any doubt about health and safety issues please consult the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).