Tuesday, 15 April 2014

How chalcophile enrichment stopped industrialisation

A recent letter from Tim Low and Antoni Milewski presents an interesting picture of Chinese history:

“Hi Anthony (copied to Julien),

Part of our argument w.r.t. extinct Chinese parrots is that China has been disturbed profoundly by humans for far, far longer than the New World. I’ve known for years that the Chinese started using fossil fuels long before Europeans, but now I can put numbers to this. A recent study by John Dodson (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in Sydney) and co-authors (The Holocene, doi. org/rw8), investigating a site in northern China, have found evidence that the Chinese were using coal for fuel by 3500 years ago after deforesting the environment to the point of being forced to turn to coal instead. This refers to the Chinese Bronze Age. In fact, the sample at one site dated back much farther than that, to 4600 years ago! Admittedly the study area is unusual in that coal was lying around on the surface, and so mining of coal may have been unnecessary, but even so this shows how early the Chinese began to use fossil fuel – something the Europeans only began in the eighteenth century. However one looks at the fact, it’s clear that the Chinese were ahead of the rest of the world, in burning coal, by not hundreds of years but thousands of years.
All the best,


This story is something that is very surprising to me – although I knew of small-scale uses of coal for a very long time in the Enriched World.

China, like Western Europe, has substantial deposits of coal formed in the Carboniferous when its northwest – apart from the Tiān Shān – was a group of oceanic island arcs that became the Kazakhstan and Junggar Blocks, whilst the North China Craton was cool and humid to give large deposits of peat and muck to form coal that, in spite of intense deposition of sediments from the Tiān Shān and Himalayas, are close to the surface.

The question that begs one is that why China did not gain from using coal as Europe did. When Europe began burning coal, it was able to develop manganese metallurgy, which was the biggest breakthrough since iron was smelted, and which led to the industrial revolution. Europe was also able to develop current electricity, which produced the greatest breakthrough in human technology – lithophile metallurgy – which allowed the basic raw material of the continental crust to be used structurally for the first time and created the first industrial society.

There are two key possibilities:
  1. that coal was burned in China before iron metallurgy developed, so that the Chinese never saw the potential in coal use
    • this begs the question of why China would have lost coal technology in Zhōu times when iron was first smelted there
  2. That China’s depletion in lithophile and even some siderophile elements slowed or halted technological development
    • Modern China, however, does have large deposits of iron ore and manganese; however, these are concentrated in Inner Mongolia or South China away from where Chinese civilisation developed
    • China does lack high-grade deposits of chrome ore, cobalt and nickel, key elements for the development of electrical generation and modern steels
      • in fact, the absence of the use of cobalt and nickel by ancient Enriched World civilisations is a reflection of the concentration of their ores in infertile ophiolitic regions, since cobalt and nickel metallurgy is easier than iron
    • In contrast, China – especially Tibet and surrounding areas – is exceptionally rich in rare chalcophile elements, having a high proportion of reserves of antimony, mercury and tin – all of which have exceptionally high enrichment factors.
This uniform enrichment in chalcophile elements undoubtedly delayed the Industrial Revolution a long way beyond iron metallurgy and the use of coal.

The techniques to extract ferrochrome, cobalt and nickel are the same as iron, so that once coal became available the technology for high-quality steels would already have existed. With cobalt available, magnetic properties needed to generate electricity would have been possible, but China – like Europe, North America and Spanish-speaking Latin America – is too young geologically to have major deposits of those reactive metals needed for an Industrial Revolution or possibly even for experiments with these metals.

Consequently, before the settlement of Australia, any Industrial Revolution would have been out of the question, even had technology with cobalt, nickel and manganese developed much further than it had in 1788.

On the flip side, would Australian settlements have survived and thrived as they have without lithophile metallurgy, or would they have declined beyond, say, the catastrophic 1914 drought??

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