Will Ukrainian grain make it through the Black Sea?
Speaking of food prices: Last Saturday, Russia and Ukraine signed a deal, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, to allow grain exports through the Black Sea, intended to help address the global food crisis. Grain prices momentarily dipped on the news; the world breathed a sigh of relief. But just hours later, a Russian missile strike on the port of Odessa, the very port needed to export Ukrainian grain. Still, matters seem to be moving forward on the agreement: This week, Turkey set up a control center to monitor grain exports and expects the first shipment to leave Black Sea ports as early as this week.
Remember, though: Just as it is with natural gas and Europe, Russia is likely to continue to signal – clearly and with potentially devastating effects – that it calls the shots when it comes to Ukraine’s ability to export grain. And regardless, while this deal could be a critical move for food supply, it is no panacea: Extreme weather events, rising energy costs, and various export bans continue to drive up world food prices, and did so even before Russia’s invasion.
A new policy tool for refilling the SPR
On July 26, the Biden Administration announced yet another release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – on top of a record 125 million barrels already sold into the market. At the same time, the White House also announced a new set of policy tools that will govern its SPR buyback plan, set to begin after Fiscal Year 2023, intended not just to help replenish the SPR but also to spur production: Fixed-price forward contracts. These mean the DoE can set a price today at which it will buy oil from producers tomorrow to refill the SPR – rather than simply buying tomorrow at tomorrow’s price, as with conventional contracts. This mechanism is supposed to incentivize production, as it protects producers from price drops at the time of delivery. In other words, the risk of an oil price crash is borne by the government, not producers.
A technical breakthrough could ease scandium’s scarcity
The US lists scandium as a critical mineral. Used in scandium-aluminum alloys, the metal dramatically improves aluminum’s strength, flexibility, heat resistance, and weight, making it ideal for aircraft and aerospace applications. Much of global scandium production is in China, however. Russia also produces the metal, but the war has disrupted supplies. That leaves the US highly dependent on imports from unreliable partners (read: geopolitical adversaries). A recent innovation from Rio Tinto could change that: the Anglo-Australian mining giant has figured out how to extract scandium oxide from its existing titanium operations, making it the first North American producer of the mineral. The company has also just begun extracting another critical mineral, tellurium, from its copper operation in Utah. As Andy Home at Reuters puts it, “Mine and processing waste is fast emerging as a new frontier for critical metals supply.”
Russia announces plans to withdraw from the International Space Station
Russia announced Tuesday that it will pull out of the International Space Station by 2024, and instead build its own orbiting outpost. The International Space Station is run jointly by Russia, the US, Europe, Japan, and Canada. It conducts scientific research and technology testing. Should Moscow be serious about its threat, Russian withdrawal would put major pressure on the space station, making it a tremendous challenge for the 24-year-old project to stay running – especially if, for example, it became necessary to remove all Russian components. Of course, Moscow’s announcement could also be bluster; an effort further to impose pressure on the West. As former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in reaction to the move, “Remember that Russia’s best game is chess.”
Still, even just as a threat, Moscow’s announcement underscores the degree to which assumptions about a post-Cold War interconnected world are faltering. The past decades have seen extensive and growing international cooperation between geopolitical adversaries, or at least competitors, especially in science. Now, it seems increasingly likely that that was a blip not a trend.
Will a tritium shortage trip up nuclear fusion?
Nuclear fusion offers the promise of abundant clean energy. But it is still very much at an experimental stage. Technical hurdles abound. So do resource challenges: There might not be enough tritium in the world to fuel fusion reactors. But recently, fusion scientists have been working on how to combine tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, with its sibling deuterium. The world has an abundant supply of the latter, but scant supplies of the former. Could more tritium be produced? Possibly. Nineteen Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) nuclear reactors are responsible for the entire global commercial supply of tritium. Other countries have CANDUs, too, including four in South Korea, two in Romania, and two in China. Could these countries eventually become key suppliers of fuel for fusion energy?