Humans, animals, and other living organisms have relied on natural resources for survival since the beginning of time. The conservation of natural resources is important as the world population continues to grow, with many of the most important natural resources being finite and non-renewable.
Natural resources are materials and substances that occur naturally and can be used for economic gain. They include minerals, forests, fertile land, and water. Some natural resources, such as soil and water, are essential for the existence of life.
A non-renewable natural resource is defined as a resource that cannot be replaced in our lifetime. They include metal ores, fossil fuels, earth minerals, and in some in certain situations groundwater.
Renewable natural resources are resources that can be replaced naturally in our lifetime, and used repeatedly. Examples include fresh water, timber, oxygen, and solar energy.
This article will discuss the top natural resources and what they are used for.
Copper has been in use for thousands of years and is one of the first metals ever used by man. It occurs naturally and is one of the few metallic elements that occur in native form.
The majority of copper is used in electrical wires, industrial machinery, and roofing and plumbing. Copper is also used in nutritional supplements and fungicides for agriculture.
The United States is the second largest producer of copper, which is mined from copper ores and recovered through recycling. Copper can be recycled without any loss in quality. As a result nearly just as much copper is recovered through recycling as is derived from newly mined ore.
The first thing most people think of when they hear the word helium is balloons, however balloons make up a tiny fraction of the total helium used in today’s society. According the Royal Society of Chemistry helium is necessary as a cooling medium for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers, and satellite instruments.
Because helium is non-reactive it is used to create a protective inert atmosphere in the processes of making fiber optics and semi-conductors. Helium is also used to detect for leaks in air-conditioning systems, and to inflate air-bags in vehicles because it is non-toxic and diffuses quickly.
Even though helium is the second most abundant element in the solar system, it is considered a non-renewable resource. Most helium is produced where coincidences of unlikely situations occur within the Earth’s crust, making the gas rare. Extracting helium from the air is uneconomical with there being less than 0.00052% in air.
Bauxite forms as rocks in soils with very little soluble materials that are located in wet tropical climates. This is one of the reasons why Australia is the top producer of bauxite.
Bauxite is the main ingredient in making aluminum metal, and nearly all aluminum produced has been extracted from bauxite. It is also used in hydraulic fracturing, a process in drilling for oil and gas.
Iron is in everyday items all around us and is the world’s most commonly used metal. Iron is a good conductor, durable, and plentiful making up 5% of the Earth’s crust. This is why it is used to make steel, electrical wiring and conduct, pipes, tools, hinges, door handles, stoves, pots and pans, and even sofa frames.
Most of the world’s iron ore is mined from banded iron formations (BIFs) primarily located in Australia, Brazil, and South Africa.
People have been using coal as a heat source for centuries. In today’s society coal has become the primary source of fuel for electricity production because it is abundant, has high energy output, and is relatively inexpensive.
Coal is a fossil fuel created through a process known as coalification. Plants that formed millions of years ago in swamp forests died and formed layers of peat that were buried through geological processes, and then altered through heat and pressure in low oxygen environments.
There are many problems that accompany the mining and use of coal. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the more serious environmental issues is the adverse effect on surface and ground water from the disposal of ash and sludge that results from the burning of coal and the cleaning of flue gases.
6. Natural Gas
Natural gas supplies about 22% of the nation’s energy needs and is used as an energy source for heating, cooking, and generation of electricity. It is also used in the process of making plastics and other commercially important organic compounds.
Natural gas is a fossil fuel created by the decomposition of organic material, usually from ancient marine organisms, in an anaerobic environment. There are two categories of natural gas deposits, conventional and unconventional. Conventional deposits are associated with oil reserves, and unconventional deposits include coal bed methane, shale gas, and tight-gas sandstone.
Like natural gas, oil is created through the decomposition of organic matter in an anaerobic environment over millions of years. Oil supplies 40% of the nation’s energy needs and is used for the production of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, propane, and asphalt. Oil is also used in the manufacturing of petrochemicals for production of plastics, synthetic rubber, and chemicals.
The location of oil and gas reserves is determined by plate tectonics. This is why most oil is found in deserts, artic regions, river deltas, and continental margins offshore. Plate tectonics create the locations for anoxic burial and the high pressure and heat required for organic matter to turn to oil.
Salt, also known as sodium chloride, is an essential mineral for the life of humans and animals.
Salt is mined through one of four methods: rock salt mining underground, solution mining by injecting a solvent that dissolves underground salt and then is recovered through solar evaporations, sea water evaporation in which sea water is collected in solar evaporation ponds, and inland solar evaporation which is similar to sea water evaporation but inland.
Over 40% of the salt mined is used in the chemical industry, with another 40% being used as deicer on roads in the winter. The remaining 20% is spread out over processing of table salt, and manufacturing of rubber and other goods.
Timber is an important renewable natural resource in many societies around the world. If production is approached in a responsible way it can be both sustainable and economical.
Timbers are mostly used to create lumber for use in construction. They can also be roughly shaped and used as heavy duty beams and columns.
Timber is also used to make paper products, fiber board, hard board, plywood, and particle board.
Soil is one of the most important natural resources on Earth, being required both directly and indirectly for food production, manufacturing of industrial raw materials, and for generation of energy sources. Soil is essential for the function of ecosystems providing nutrients, oxygen, water, and heat.
Soil resources are being degraded by poor agricultural practices and chemical contamination. One of the most significant challenges facing current and future generations is the preservation of this irreplaceable natural resource from pollution and physical destruction.
Like soil, water is one of the most important natural resources for the existence of life. Fresh water is consider a renewable resource, but most of the water humans drink comes from ground water sources that are being depleted faster than they can be replenished.
Even though water is considered a renewable resource, water resources are facing serious threats by human activities. These activities include pollution, urban growth, deforestation, and climate change.
Natural resources are essential to civilization as we know it, and are the basis for economy and survival.
Resources such as bauxite, iron, and copper form the basis of everyday items, while water, soil, and salt are required for life.
It is humanity’s duty to protect and conserve natural resources. Some things you can do in your everyday life to conserve natural resources include recycling plastic, paper, and metal, and using energy more efficiently.
Do you have any ideas on how to conserve and protect natural resources? Please let us know by leaving a comment.
Featured Image Credit: Nicolas Raymond @ Flickr