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Resources, scarcity, growth and the environment

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Exergy is the technical term for the fraction of fuel energy that can be utilized to perform useful work (such as driving a vehicle or generating electricity). However, the precise thermodynamic definition applies to any material substance with a chemical composition different from its local environment and thus capable of initiating some chemical reaction leading to a mutual equilibrium. Thus the exergy embodied in a material is essentially a measure of its 'distance' from the environment. This corresponds to the grade of a metal ore, for instance. But it also applies to a waste. (The more reactive the waste the greater its exergy content.) This paper reviews applications of the exergy concept to various notions of sustainability, including 'dematerialization' and resource abundance/scarcity. It concludes with a brief discussion of optimal extraction, optimal consumption and valuation, with some implications for future research needs.

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