Rare earths are becoming the single most important tool of the third industrial revolution. The sperm whale couldn’t have plotted its revenge any better. For three centuries the animal was hunted for the oily content of the oil compartment in its head for candle making. The sperm whale provided oil and wax to enlighten humankind. It provided the candlelight for John D Rockefeller to put in play his incredible schemes that made him the first billionaire in history.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the sperm whale was economically extinct. The world was looking for a new source of light. Crude oil contained ten percent kerosene that Rockefeller started selling for the oil lamp market, which he developed so aggressively that at one point in time he gave away oil lamps to build up market demand.
The growing dependency on kerosene inspired a certain Colonel Derrick, still known today as the inventor of the oil derrick, to start drilling the ground for oil in the graveyards of Pennsylvania. By a stroke of luck he found oil under geological domes that in the Pennsylvanian landscape were knolls that were favoured by settlers used as their graveyards. And so, oil and Christianity flourished together while drilling rights were exchanged for new chapels. It was a perfect convergence of needs.
We are now at the same point in history as we were in 1854 when we switched from spermaceti candles to kerosene. But this time we’re dealing with rare earths. The rest is pretty well the same, except for the name of the players.
1854 is an especially remarkable year in history because it is the year of incorporation of Standard Oil, John D Rockefeller’s brainchild. By the end of the 19th century, Standard Oil had a vertical monopoly on the oil industry: it owned the oil wells of Pennsylvania, railroads to move the oil around, the refineries for kerosene from mineral oil and the distribution network of kerosene. But it hadn’t caused an industrial revolution yet. The industrialized world was impatiently waiting for the internal combustion engine. Earlier in the 1800’s coal had been adopted by the manufacturing sector and it had caused quite a stir called The First Industrial Revolution by increasing productivity several folds.
In 1897 Rudolf von Diesel filed a patent for the diesel engine. Before his there were three other patents for the gas engines. But the world promptly ignored these new inventions because it competed with the well-established kerosene market. Why would be divert a commodity for which there was a lucrative market toward another market of the same value? The world wanted more kerosene: it had no need for a distraction. No the world was waiting for Henry Ford to find a way to mass manufacture the automobile.
Henry Ford supported the industrial revolution through another significant convergence of needs that was figuratively fertilized by horse manure. At the turn of the nineteenth century, horse carts were the main mean of transportation. New York city struggled with 40 tons of horse manure a day. It was so bad that diseases associated with this fecal matter caused the death of over 20,000 New Yorkers a year. In addition, Standard Oil was in search of an outlet for two of its by-products: 1) gasoline which was a light distillate that caused explosions in oil lamps when tried as an oil fuel, and 2) the asphalt residues that resulted from the fractionation of kerosene from oil. Also Henry Ford invented industrial assembly lines and had a social agenda: he wanted to pay his workers well to increase their standard of living. And so the middle class motored on paved roads that did not stink anymore. We were well entrenched into the industrial revolution that gave us sliced bread, machine-rolled cigarettes, and Corn Flakes.
The fundamental assertion is that our current economy has been shaped in spirit and structure by the precepts of the second industrial revolution, which were identical to those Judeo-Christian precepts that led to the extirpation of the sperm whale.
A new convergence of needs is facilitating the third industrial revolution and this time around the electric motor will be its engine. The hybrid car, with its lithium, dysprosium and graphene cells, among many components, is market ready. Early adopters have tested it in the market place and we know it works. At the same time the middle class is becoming increasing aware of climatic change: it has given grudging acquiescence to the correlative evidence provided by the scientific community. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases are warming up the planet, which in turns changes the weather for the worst. Investors are aware of rare earths to the extent that they inject speculative capital in rare earth ventures. The automotive industry is already in place and the distribution network of electricity is well established as every home is connected to the electrical grid. The exploitation of rare earths and associated technologies are supporting local economies.
We cannot create energy. We can only transform it from one form to the next. In this case, natural gas, which is grossly underpriced as compared to oil is the perfect source of energy to support the third industrial revolution. With this, the hybrid engine might play the same role in the future as Henry Ford’s mass-produced gas engine played in the second industrial revolution.
Moby Dick couldn’t have planned it better to get Ahab off his back.