You may have heard the terms “renewable” and “non renewable” bandied about in the discussions on climate change and global warming – the hot topics in today’s world. This article offers a list of 10 examples of non renewable resources.
You may also know that solar energy comes under the renewable category and fossil fuels like coal and oil are non renewable.
Do you know why some are renewable and why others are non renewable? And why do we need to choose renewable over non renewable resources?
Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more in this article.
What does non renewable mean?
The literal meaning of the word “non renewable” is “existing in finite quantity; not capable of being replenished”.
When we say non renewable resources, it means natural resources that cannot be replaced or replenished because they exist in limited quantities. Natural resources are things available in nature that we can use for our needs. These are things that came into existence without human intervention or action.
Fossil fuels like oil and coal are the most prominent examples of non renewable resources. Though by non renewable it is implied that coal and oil cannot be replenished, this is not entirely true.
It takes millions of years for dead plant matter to turn into coal in favorable environmental conditions. At the rate at which we are currently using it up, these resources are not getting replenished at the same rate. In other words, we will have to wait for millions of years for new coal deposits to form. This means it has to be treated as a finite or non renewable resource.
10 non renewable resources examples
As mentioned earlier, coal and oil are the most notable among non renewable resources. Besides being non renewable, these two have been the main sources of energy for us in the last few centuries.
However, non renewable resources don’t imply energy sources alone. It can be any natural resource that we use to live our lives comfortably. It also includes metals like gold and silver that we mostly use for making ornaments or as instruments for investment.
Here are the top 10 non renewable natural resources examples.
It is one of the most commonly used fossil fuels. We will run out of known coal deposits in a few decades. Besides this setback, coal is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses. We are still finding it difficult to reduce its use. That is the level of dependence we have on coal.
Decaying organic matter in swamp environments got embedded under layers of soil millions of years ago. With the geological forces of heat and pressures playing their role to perfection, this turned into coal eventually.
Whether any more deposits of coal will form is difficult to predict as it is a long process spanning millions of years. During this time the earth went through extreme climatic conditions, which contributed to the formation of coal. Whether the same conditions will repeat is hard to predict.
It is not just the fact that we are running out of coal deposits that we should be concerned about. The contribution of coal to the emission of greenhouse gasses is undeniable. This is the reason for climate change and global warming.
Everything points to ditching coal as an energy source. That is what we are trying to do.
2. Oil or petroleum
While coal is used mostly in the industrial sector, petroleum has a much wider user base. A strong contender to the top position among non renewable resources, petroleum comprises crude oil and petroleum products. Petrol and diesel we use to run vehicles are obtained by refining crude oil. Plastics are the most used of petroleum products.
While it was dead plant matter that converted into coal over millions of years, petroleum comes from fossilized animals. Again, the time taken for the conversion is so long that petroleum can be treated as a non renewable resource. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the same climatic conditions will repeat to help in its formation.
Just like coal, petroleum is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gasses. Even with innovations and newer technologies, we have not been able to bring down the polluting aspect of petroleum to acceptable levels.
Our dependence on these non renewable energy sources is so complete that even after knowing its limited supply and harmful effects, we still continue to rely on it. The only option before us is to find equally good or better renewable energy alternatives.
The jury is still out on whether nuclear energy is a renewable resource or not. While some say it is, others argue that nuclear energy in its own right is renewable but uranium, the fuel used is not.
You can find low quantities of uranium in all rocks on the earth. It is also present in seawater in minuscule quantities. Scientists believe that the uranium deposits that are present in the earth’s crust today were formed before the formation of the earth itself in one or more supernovae 6.5 billion years ago. Some believe that it formed as a result of the merger of two neutron stars.
After the earth’s formation, it got enriched in its crust. Scientists have concluded that the radioactive decay of uranium present in the earth’s crust is the reason for the molten state of its core.
Uranium is present in two isotopes – U-235 and U-238. However, for nuclear power plants, only the U-235 isotope of uranium is used. The reason being U-235 is unstable and easier to break apart. The bad news is U-235 is rarer. To get this, uranium ore is mined in large quantities and enriched. Enrichment is vital to make it suitable as a nuclear fuel.
The Nuclear Energy Agency believes that we have 200 years’ worth of uranium to run nuclear power plants. And that would be the end of nuclear energy unless we discover another fuel.
The iron ores mined today were formed billions of years ago when the earth’s atmosphere didn’t have oxygen. A unique set of circumstances led to the creation of banded iron formations on the ocean floor.
Scientists believe that iron is present in large quantities in the earth’s core. It is so abundant that it is also present in our blood. We have discovered the presence of iron in the Sun and other stars. It has been found in the meteorites that fall from the sky.
Though it is abundant and there is no immediate prospect of running out of it, it is still a non renewable resource as it cannot be replenished.
Iron had been used in various sectors with a multitude of applications. However, the bulk of the iron mined goes into making various steels – an alloy of iron with other metals. Carbon steel, alloy steel, and stainless steel are the most notable among them.
Competing with iron for versatility and popularity, aluminum is as much part of our daily lives as iron. In packaging, as a building material, in automobile and aircraft bodies, and power lines, it has integrated into our lives without us realizing it.
Aluminum is found in igneous rocks. It is one of the most abundant metals on the earth and in the entire Universe. However, it is tagged as a non renewable resource as it doesn’t get replenished as fast as it is getting used up. Someday we are sure to run out of it.
Its lightweight and non-rusting property has helped aluminum replace iron in many sectors. From its discovery in 1825, its use has seen a meteoric rise. However, recently our awareness of its limited supply is forcing us to go for recycling. Aluminum is one of those rare metals that can be recycled completely. This is a positive sign for the aluminum industry. We can make this non renewable resource last longer.
One of the first metals that humans discovered, gold has been used by us in various capacities. But its use in jewelry, as a medium of exchange, and later on as an instrument for investment are the driving factors.
Gold is considered the symbol of power and wealth. Just like it mesmerized the people of the past and made them fight numerous wars to possess it, even today it triggers extreme passions, countless crimes, and untold miseries in all the corners of the world. It has been discovered in archeological finds in Egypt and lower Mesopotamian regions in the 5th and 4th millennium BC.
Beyond personal use as an ornament or investment article, gold has uses in the medical and industrial sectors. Gold is used for the treatment of various diseases like cancer, tuberculosis, and arthritis. In the field of technology, it is used in the manufacture of computers, phones, and many other electronic devices.
Almost 3000 tons of gold are mined annually to meet the growing demand for the yellow metal. However, like many other natural resources like uranium, gold was formed as a result of the collision of neutron stars billions of years ago when our solar system was formed.
As these circumstances are not possible to replicate, the chances of more gold formation are ruled out. This means, gold is a finite and non renewable resource.
It is believed that humans stumbled upon this white metal around the time they discovered gold. Silver found its use in similar applications such as in jewelry, coinage, and as a medium of exchange in ancient times. Most often, silver has played second fiddle to gold but there have been periods in history when it was valued more than gold.
While both gold and silver are highly inactive metals and do not corrode by forces of nature, silver is more versatile. The application of silver in industries is much more than that of gold. Moreover, its comparative affordability makes silver a more lucrative investment instrument.
Almost 25,000 tons of silver are mined annually around the world. Silver also has a formation history similar to that of gold. It was created by the collision of neutron stars at the time of the creation of the solar system billions of years ago.
Unfortunately, this chain of events is impossible to recreate. This means no more silver can form on earth’s crust. This translates to the sad but inevitable truth that the quantity of silver available is finite. Silver, like gold and many other metals, is a non renewable resource.
After gold and silver, sand may not seem worth mentioning. However, we need to remember that, unlike gold and silver, we need sand to sustain life on earth. It is most essential to our existence after air, water, and food. In fact, we can grow food only if sand is present.
However, sand is a non renewable resource, unlike air and water. Sand is formed when rocks break down by weathering and erosion over thousands or millions of years. Rocks don’t decompose easily, especially quartz and feldspar.
When rocks break down, the minerals trapped in them also come loose. The rock sediments and the mineral deposits form sand.
Sand finds its maximum use in the construction industry and glass manufacturing. Its other uses include oil exploration and land reclamation. Sand is a major component of concrete used in the construction of buildings and concrete roads.
Unfortunately, anything that takes millions of years to form is not easy to replenish. Especially if it is getting used up at a fast rate like sand. It is estimated that 50 billion tons of sand are mined annually worldwide to meet our demand.
As it is a non renewable resource, we are going to run out of sand sooner or later.
Phosphate is mined in the form of rocks. This is the primary source of phosphorus, a key ingredient in fertilizers. Though not as well-known as oil or coil, phosphorus is equally or more important to us and our existence because we cannot grow food without it.
Phosphorus has an important role to play in every stage of plant growth. From the formation of roots and the development of seeds to its most vital role in photosynthesis, phosphorus is as essential to plants as oxygen is to us.
Fertilizers containing phosphorus are added to soil to help crops grow in cultivated land. Close to 90% of the phosphate rocks mined are used in the manufacture of phosphorus fertilizers. The rest is used in the making of livestock feed. The phosphorus we get through the food consumed is essential to sustain our metabolism and bone health.
We get phosphate from the rocks formed from sediments deposited on the ocean bed. This comes from the shells of invertebrates and the bones and excrement of vertebrates. These deposits take thousands of years to form sedimentary rocks. This rock formation moves from the ocean floor to land by a slow geological process called uplift.
All this means the time taken to replenish the supply of phosphate rocks is too long that it is treated as a non renewable resource. With the global population growing at an alarming rate and the need for food expanding, it is time we learned to use this resource judiciously.
10. Rare earth elements
Rare earth elements or REE are a set of seventeen metallic elements. This includes the fifteen lanthanides together with scandium and yttrium. The similarity displayed in their magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties makes them a vital component in electronic devices.
Found dispersed unevenly across the world, the rare earth elements share their cosmic origins with uranium, gold, silver, and similar non renewable resources. They were formed at the time of the formation of the solar system. As there is no chance of this repeating in the near future on the earth, rare earth elements will remain as a non renewable resource.
On the other hand, their application is skyrocketing with the innovation in the electronics sector. Though there are enough deposits to sustain our needs for some more time, the fact remains that they are finite. As our technological advances are highly dependent on these elements, the need for recycling cannot be emphasized enough.
As we go through these non renewable resources list, we understand that nature has provided them to help us make the best use of our lives. However, our greed and carelessness are depleting these resources at a faster rate than we can afford.
Switching to renewable resources wherever possible to supplement their usage is the need of the hour. Mindful use and recycling can help in prolonging their availability.