Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth by Keith Veronese
Preface. Capitalism believes there’s a solution for everything due to Man’s Inventive Brain, but when it comes to getting metals out of the earth, there are some very serious limitations. In parts per billion, there’s only 4 of platinum, 20 of silver, and less than 1 part for many important metals. Yet they are essential for cars, wind turbines, electronics, military weapons, oil refining, and dozens of other uses listed below.
China controls 97% of rare earth metals. Uh-oh.
The overwhelming majority of Earth’s crust is made of hydrogen and oxygen. The only metals present in large amounts within the crust are aluminum and iron, with the latter also dominating the planetary core. These four elements make up about 90% of the mass of the crust, with silicon, nickel, magnesium, sulfur, and calcium rounding out another 9% of the planet’s mass.
Our civilization is far more dependent on very rare elements than I’d realized, which are extremely scarce and being dissipated since so few are recycled (it’s almost impossible to recycle them though, the cost is too high, and many elements are hard to separate from one another).
So in addition to peak oil, add in peak metals to the great tidal wave of collapse on the horizon.
What follows are my kindle notes.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Keith Veronese. 2015. Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth. Prometheus books.
Scientifically, metals are known for a common set of properties. Almost all metals have the ability to transmit electricity and heat—very useful properties in the world of electronics. Most metals can be easily bent and molded into intricate shapes. As a nice bonus, most metals are resistant to all but the most extreme chemical reactions in the outside environment, with the added stability increasing their usefulness.
A very apparent exception to this stability, however, is the rusting of iron, a natural process that occurs as iron is exposed to oxygen and water over time in junkyards, barns, and elsewhere.
Is a particular metal hard to find because there is a limited amount, is it simply difficult to retrieve, or does technological demand outpace supply? The acquisition difficulty is likely due to a combination of all these reasons
Parts per billion
4 Platinum, a scarce, precious metal, exists in four parts per billion of Earth’s crust—only four out of a billion atoms within the crust are platinum. This is an extremely small amount. To put the amount of platinum on Earth in an easier-to-visualize light, imagine if one took all the platinum mined in the past several decades and melted it down; the amount of molten platinum would barely fill the average home swimming pool.
20 Silver, a metal many use on a daily basis to eat with, exists at only a 20-parts-per-billion value—20 out of every billion atoms on the planet are silver.
1 Osmium, rhenium, iridium, ruthenium, and even gold exist in smaller quantities, much less than one part per billion, while some are available in such small concentrations that no valid measurement exists.
On the extreme end of the scarcity spectrum is the metal promethium. The metal is named for the Greek Titan Prometheus, a mythological trickster who is known for stealing fire from the gods. Scientists first isolated promethium in 1963 after decades of speculation about the metal. Promethium is one of the rarest elements on Earth and would be very useful if available in substantial amounts. If enough existed on the planet, promethium could be used to power atomic batteries that would continue to work for decades at a time. Estimates suggest there is just over a pound of promethium within the crust of the entire planet. When the density of the metal is accounted for, this is just enough of the metal to fill the palm of a kindergartner’s hand.
This special attraction to iron explains why so many prized metals are hard to find. Earth’s molten core is estimated to be comprised of up to 90% iron, leading the elements to sink into the depths of Earth’s crust and continually move closer to the planet’s iron core over billions of years. At the same time, this drive to the core depletes the amount of the metals available in Earth’s crust. The pull poses a problem to mining efforts—a pull to the core prevents the formation of concentrated deposits that would be useful to mine, leading the metals to instead reside in the crust of our planet in spread-out, sparse amounts.
The mass of Earth is approximately 5.98 × 1024 kilograms. There is absolutely no easy (or useful) way to put a number of this magnitude into a reasonable context. I mean, it’s the entire Earth. I could say something silly, like the mass of the planet is equal to 65 quadrillion Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, each of which weighs 92 million kilograms a piece. This comparison might as well be an alien number, as it lends no concept of magnitude.
The overwhelming majority of Earth’s crust is made of hydrogen and oxygen. The only metals present in large amounts within the crust are aluminum and iron, with the latter also dominating the planetary core. These four elements make up about 90% of the mass of the crust, with silicon, nickel, magnesium, sulfur, and calcium rounding out another 9% of the planet’s mass.
Making up the remaining 1% are the 100+ elements in the periodic table, including a number of quite useful, but very rare, metals.
What is easier to understand are reports of the ages and proportion of metals and other elements that reside on the surface of the planet and just below. At the moment, Earth’s crust is the only portion of the planet that can be easily minded by humans.
Deposits of rare metals, including gold, are found under the surface of the planet’s oceans, but these deposits are rarely mined for a number of reasons. These metals often lie within deposits of sulfides, solid conjugations of metal and the element sulfur that occur at the mouth of hydrothermal vents. While technology exists that allows for the mining of deep-sea sulfide deposits, extremely expensive remotely operated vehicles are often necessary to recover the metals. Additionally, oceanic mining is a politically charged issue, as the ownership of underwater deposits can be easily contested. As technology advances, underwater mining for rare metals and other elements will become more popular, but, for the moment, due to cost and safety reasons, we are restricted to the ground beneath our feet that covers about one-third of the planet. Earth’s crust varies in thickness from 25 to 50 kilometers along the continents, and so far, humankind has been unable to penetrate the full extent of the layer. The crust is thickest in the middle of the continent and slowly becomes thinner the closer one comes to the ocean. So what does it take to dig through the outer crust of our planet? It takes a massive budget, a long timescale, and the backing of a superpower, and even this might not be enough to reach the deepest depth. Over the course of two decades during the Cold War, the Soviet Union meticulously drilled to a depth of 12 kilometers into the crust of northwest Russia’s Kola Peninsula. No, this was not part of a supervillain-inspired plan to artificially create volcanoes but was rather an engineering expedition born out of the scientific head-butting that was common during the Cold War. The goal of this bizarre plot? To carve out a part of the already thin crust north of the Arctic Circle to see just how far humans could dig along and to see exactly how the makeup of the outer layer of the planet would change. Work on the Kola Superdeep Borehole began in 1970, with three decades of drilling leaving a 12-kilometer-deep hole in the Baltic crust, a phenomenal depth, yet it penetrated but a third of the crust’s estimated thickness. As they tore through the crust in the name of science and national pride, the team repeatedly encountered problems due to high temperatures. While you may feel cooler than ground-level temperatures in a basement home theater room or during a visit to a local cavern, as we drill deep into the surface, the temperature increases 15 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1.5 kilometers. At the depths reached during the Kola Borehole expeditions, temperatures well over 200 degrees Fahrenheit are expected. The extremely hot temperatures and increased pressure led to a series of expensive mechanical problems, and the project was abandoned.
The Kola Superdeep Borehole is the inspiration for the late 1980s and 1990s urban legend of a Soviet mission to drill a “Well to Hell,” with the California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network reporting the high temperatures encountered during drilling as literal evidence for the existence of hell. The Soviet engineers failed to reach hell, and they also failed to dig deep enough to locate rare earth metal reserves. At the moment, we simply lack the technology to breach our planet’s crust. The Kola Borehole fails to reach the midpoint of the crust, with at least twenty more kilometers of drilling to go at the time the project was shut down in 1992. Although Earth’s crust holds a considerable amount of desirable metals, if the metals are not in accessible, concentrated deposits, it is usually not worth the cost it would take for a corporation to retrieve them
The composition of metals within the planet’s crust is not uniform, unfortunately, further dividing the world’s continents into “haves” and “have nots” when it comes to in-demand metals.
Copper is very hard to isolate from the crust in a pure form. Bronze, a combination of copper with tin, was sufficient for our ancestors to make weapons and tools, but purer forms of copper and other metals are necessary for the varied number of modern uses. Copper is found within the mineral chalcopyrite. To isolate pure copper from chalcopyrite calls for a work-intensive process that involves crushing a large mass of chalcopyrite, smelting the mineral, removing sulfur, a gaseous infusion, and electrolysis before 99% pure, usable copper is obtained. Aluminum, a metal so common it is used to make disposable containers for soft drinks, undergoes a similar process before a form that meets standards for industrial use is obtained.
ROCKS INTO SMARTPHONES. The use of exotic metals has become commonplace to improve the activity of existing consumer goods. The piece of aluminum used as part of a capacitor within a smartphone is exchanged for a sliver of tantalum in order to keep up with processor demands, creating an enormous market for the rare metal. Rhodium, ruthenium, palladium, tellurium, rhenium, osmium, and iridium join the extremely well-known platinum and gold as some of the rarest metals on the planet that find regular uses in the medical industry. These rare metals play interesting roles in protecting the environment. A great example is the use of platinum, palladium, and rhodium in catalytic converters, a key component in every automobile built and sold in the United States since the 1970s. Each converter contains a little over five grams of platinum, palladium, or rhodium, but this meager amount acts as a catalyst that turns carbon monoxide into a water vapor and harmless emissions for hundreds of thousands of miles, with the metal unchanged throughout the process. An extremely recent and highly relevant example of a little-known metal that jumped to the forefront of demand is tantalum. Tantalum is in almost every smartphone, with a sliver in each of the nearly one billion smartphones sold worldwide each year.
Europium is used to create the color red in liquid-crystal televisions and monitors, with no other chemical able to reproduce the color reliably. As copper communication wires are replaced with fiber-optic cable, erbium is used to coat fiber-optic cable to increase the efficiency and speed of information transfer, and the permanently magnetic properties of neodymium lead to its extensive use in headphones, speakers, microphones, hard drives, and electric car batteries.
Conflict metals share a number of parallels with a much sought-after and contested resource: oil. These metals may serve to be the catalyst for a number of political and even military conflicts in the coming centuries. All our heavy metal elements, to which many of the rare metals belong, were born out of supernovas occurring over the past several billion years. These metals, if not recycled or repurposed, are finite resources. Inside the stories of these rare metals are human trials and political conflicts. In the past decade, the Congo has been ravaged by tribal wars to obtain tantalum, tungsten, and tin, with over five million people dying at the crossroads of supply and demand. Afghanistan and regions near the Chinese border are wellsprings for technologically viable rare metals due to the disproportionate spread of these high-demand metals in the planet’s crust. In an interesting move, the United States tasked geologists with estimating available resources of rare metals during recent military actions in Afghanistan. California, specifically the Mountain Pass Mine within San Bernardino County, was a leading supplier of rare earth metals in North America well into the 1990s. Mountain Pass, however, was shut down in the early 1990s after a variety of environmental concerns outweighed the additional cost of acquiring the rare earth metals mined there compared to overseas sources. Since the metals rarely form concentrated deposits, the places in the world that play home to highly concentrated deposits of in-demand metals become the target of corporations and governments.
The amount of europium, neodymium, ytterbium, holmium, and lanthanum is roughly the same as the amount of copper, zinc, nickel, or cobalt. Simply put, the majority of the 17 are not rare; they are spread throughout the planet in reasonable amounts. The metals are in high demand and inordinately difficult to extract and process, and it is from a combination of these factors that the 17 derive their rarity.
RARE VERSUS DIFFICULT TO ACQUIRE. While the 17 metals may be distributed throughout the planet, finding an extractable quantity is a challenge. The elements are spread so well that they appear in very small, trace quantities—a gram here, a milligram there—in deposits and are rarely, if ever, found in a pure form. Extracting and accumulating useful, high-purity quantities of these 17 metals is what lends them the “rare earth” name, as their scattered nature spreads them throughout the planet, but in tiny, tiny amounts. To obtain enough of any one of these 17 to secure a pure sample, enormous quantities of ore must be sifted through and chemically separated through a series of complex, expensive, and waste-creating processes. The basics of chemical reactions act as a spanner in the works through processing, as the desired metal is lost through side-reactions along the way. Small losses in multiple steps add up quickly, further decreasing the amount of metal available for use. Why expend so much effort to discover and refine these 17 rare metals? Many of them are necessary to fabricate modern electronics, metals woven into our everyday lives and used by brilliant scientists and engineers to fix problems and make electronics more efficient at the microscopic level. Think of the 17 rare earth metals like vitamins—you may not need a large amount of any one of them to survive, but you do need to meet a regular quota of each one. If not, your near future might resemble that of a passenger traveling in steerage from Europe to the New World as you develop scurvy from lack of vitamin C. Yes, we can make substitutes of one of the rare metals for a similarly behaving one on a case-by-case basis, but we need every metal from lanthanum to lutetium, and in sufficient amounts, if we want the remainder of the twenty-first and the upcoming twenty-second centuries to enjoy the progress we benefited from in the twentieth.
What is it about these 17 metals that make them useful? Reasons vary, but the 15 elements between lanthanum and lutetium huddled for shelter under the periodic table have a subatomic level of similarity—the 15 can hide electrons better than the rest of the elements on the periodic table.
When the new electron is added to its set (one electron for each element after lanthanide), another set of electrons is left unprotected to the positive pull of protons in the nucleus.
The extra “tug” from protons in the nucleus does not play a role as long as the atom is neutral, but should an electron become dislodged (as often occurs with metals) and an ion is formed, the ion will be smaller in size than normal due the extra pull. When metals form bonds with other atoms and elements, they often do so as ions, with this break from the norm giving the rare earth metals some of their interesting properties. Because of this phenomenon, ions of the rare earth metals from lanthanum to lutetium grow smaller in diameter from left to right across the row. This is the reverse of typical trends seen in the periodic table, as ions of elements typically become larger across the row. As seen in the rare earth metals, this alteration leads to making ions of these rare earth metals smaller; the electrons traveling along their unique path bestow on the elements interesting magnetic abilities, properties that make rare earth metals particularly sought after for use in electronics and a variety of military applications.
Minerals contain a variety of elements, with multiple metals often found in a single mineral deposit. Rocks with a consistently high concentration of a given metal, like magnetite, which has a large amount of iron, are often commonly traded.
Mineral deposits differ in the amount of usable metal they contain, with the concentration of metal, ease of extraction, and rarity playing a role in determining how mining operations proceed. Metals are found in a variety of purities, interwoven in a matrix of organic materials and often with other similar metals. Aluminum is found within bauxite deposits, tantalum and niobium are found with the coveted ore coltan, while cerium, lanthanum, praseodymium, and neodymium are found in the crystalline mineral monazite. Recovering a sample from the ground through hours of digging and manual labor is just the first step—before any of these metals can be used, an extensive process of purification is often necessary. This purification process is essential because high levels of purity are necessary for their efficient use. Five species of minerals dominate our concern in the hunt for rare earth metals: columbite, tantalite, monazite, xenotime, and bastnäsite. We can further reduce this to four species, since columbite and tantalite are often found together in the ore coltan. Coltan ore contains large deposits of tantalum and niobium, two of the most sought-after rare metals. Central Africa is home to large deposits of coltan, but the fractured nature of the nations in the region and opposing factions have taken the lives of thousands and disrupted countless more as rival groups swoop in to make money off of legal and illegal mining operations in the region. Raw monazite, xenotime, and bastnäsite are relatively inexpensive. You can buy a rock of the red-and-caramel-colored minerals on any one of a number of websites, with a fingertip-sized piece of monazite or bastnäsite available for the price of a steak dinner at a truck stop diner. Unlike the concentrated deposits of tantalum and niobium in coltan, samples of monazite, xenotime, and bastnäsite minerals hold small amounts of multiple rare earth metals within them.
Sizable deposits of monazite, xenotime, and bastnäsite are found in North America,
Searching for rare earth metals in monazite brings with it a major problem with the ore—most samples are radioactive. The naturally radioactive metal thorium is a large component of monazite, with the fear of environmental damage, additional economic cost, and employee health concerns acting as barriers to monazite mining operations. Once a sufficient quantity of any one of these minerals is obtained, there is a long road to tread before the desired metals are pulled from the rocks. Eighteen steps are necessary before monazite can begin to be purified into individual rare earth metals, while bastnäsite requires 24. Some of these steps are simple—crushing and subsequent heating of the raw mineral ore—while others are large-scale chemical reactions requiring highly trained professionals.
The minerals hold tiny amounts of several different rare metals within them. Until recently, carrying out mining operations solely to garner rare earth metals was considered much too expensive. But if the rare earth metals were a useful by-product of other mining and processing efforts, then so much the better. A great example of this phenomenon is carbonatite, a rock of interest but one less prized than coltan, bastnäsite, xenotime, or monazite. Carbonatite, is sought for the rich copper content within, with the added bonus of small amounts of rare earth metals that can be teased out as the mineral is broken down.
The light rare earth elements (LREEs) are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, and samarium, while europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, and yttrium make up the heavy rare earth elements (HREEs). As a general rule, an HREE is harder to find in substantial usable quantities than an LREE, making the heavy rare earth elements more valuable.
Overall, elements that have lower atomic masses (in day-to-day language, these elements weigh less per atom) are more abundant than atoms with higher atomic masses. Hydrogen atoms (a proton and an electron, so its atomic mass is just over one) and helium atoms (two protons, two electrons, and two neutrons for an atomic mass of four) are two of most abundant in the universe, while the number of elements at the other end of the periodic table with larger masses like gold (79 protons, 79 electrons, and an average of 118 neutrons for an atomic mass of just under 179) are far less abundant. This trailing phenomenon across the periodic table is part of the answer as to why there are fewer of the heavy rare earths on and within the planet (as well as the rest of the universe) than there are light rare earth elements.
At the moment, 90% of the world’s current supply of rare industrial metals originates from two countries. The export of raw supplies from these countries is increasingly coming under fire, with the countries championing a movement to convince corporations to move away from the quick monetary gain that exporting raw materials offers and moving toward making a profit by exporting finished consumer electronics. At present, we are seeing the beginning of territorial wars over a far more common resource, fresh water, in the United States and elsewhere in the world. If governments are experiencing difficulties sharing and parceling out water, as we see in ongoing disputes between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida over the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River and Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River basins, the quarrels possible over rights to desperately needed metals between non-civil or even warring nations could be frightening.
In the 1990s, a number of successful Chinese mining operations began, with their rich supply of high-quality rare earths flooding the global market and driving prices down to near-record lows.
China’s population is consuming rare earth metals at an astonishing rate. By the year 2016, the population of China is projected to consume one hundred and thirty thousand tons of rare earth metals a year, a number equivalent to the entire planet’s consumption in the beginning of this decade.
China holds one-third of the planet’s rare earth supply, but a vast number of mining and refining operations ongoing within its borders allow China to account for roughly 97% of the available rare earth metals market at any given time. Yes, other countries have rare earth metal resources, but they lack the infrastructure or means to put them to use. The addition of politics into the equation places China in an enviable position of power should a nation or group of nations interfere with the country’s interests on any level. Unhappy with the Japanese presence in the South China Sea? Prohibit exports to Japan.
Military weaponry relies on the same goods that require these rare-metal components, further indebting a sovereign nation.
Neodymium magnet motor can outwork an iron-based magnet motor of more than twice its size—but these benefits are not without a substantial price. Rare earth magnet components often cost ten or more times the price of their less efficient, more common counterparts, and any disruption in supply will only lead to a widening of the price gap. When faced with a long-term drop in the supply of rare earth metals, manufacturers will be forced to choose between passing the costs onto the consumer and in the process risk losing market share, or selecting cheaper, older parts and manufacturing methods—the same ones many of the rare earth metals helped replace—that would lead to inferior products and eliminate a number of technological advances.
There are over 30 pounds of rare earth metals inside of each Toyota Prius that comes off a production line, with most of that mass split between rare earth components essential to motors and the rechargeable battery. Of this 30, 10 to 15 pounds is lanthanum, with the lanthanum used as the metal component of nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. As the first generation of hybrid automobiles reaches the end of its lifetime, owners will be forced to replace their battery or move on to a different car, with both alternatives bringing an uptick in rare earth metal consumption.
The amount of rare earth metals needed to create of a state-of-the-art wind turbine dwarfs that needed for an electric car, with 500 pounds of rare earth metals needed to outfit the motors and other interior components of a single energy-generating wind turbine.
Each of the 17 rare earth metals exhibits similar basic chemical and physical properties, with these similarities providing quite the challenge when it comes to separating them from one another in raw mineral ore. If you heat a mineral sample containing several of the rare earth metals to extremely high temperatures, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate and physically separate each one because they share similar melting points. The rare earth elements are intricately bound to one another along with abundant elements like carbon and oxygen, making it impossible for industrious at-home refiners and large corporations to pick up a hundred pounds of raw mineral rocks and chip away for hours to separate the elements as one could do, in theory, with gold. Instead, concentrated acids and bases are needed to extract the individual elements, with chemists trying thousands of combinations before settling on the proper method to separate and purify a rare earth metal like cerium, a metal needed for use in pollution-eliminating catalytic converters, from a sample of bastnäsite or monazite.
Beryllium, an element now deemed vital to US national security due to its inclusion in next-generation fighter jets and drones.
Gadolinium is used to create the memory-storage components of hard drives.
Despite the eventual separation into praseodymium and neodymium, the use of didymium continues to evolve. Oil refineries use the mixture of two elements as a catalyst in petroleum cracking, a heat-intensive process necessary to break down carbon to carbon bonds present in extremely large molecules en route to the culling of octane for use in gasoline.
A myriad of weapons devices used by the United States and a handful of other countries rely on rare earth metals to operate. Neodymium and its neighbor on the periodic table, samarium, are relied on to manufacture critical components of smart bombs and precision-guided missiles, ytterbium, terbium, and europium are used to create lasers that seek out mines on land and under water, and other rare earth elements are needed to build the motors and actuators used for Predator drones and various electronics like jamming devices.
Each element from position 84 to the end of the periodic table at 118 is radioactive, and of these 36 elements, only 12 are available in large enough quantities to be useful to humans.
Deep in the interior of nuclear power plants the fuel rods are arranged in arrays within a cooling pool to maximize safety. The goal is to allow the heat generated from the billions of neutron additions to safely flow through the water—without the liquid, the heat created as a result of reactions ongoing within fuel rods would quickly overrun any containment units and lead to a meltdown. Water is chosen as the mediating material due to its ability to take on a substantial quantity of heat before evaporating.
Uranium fuel poses an ever-present danger during the reprocessing period since, once uranium and plutonium are separated from their metal housings and dissolved in acid, it is still theoretically possible (although extremely unlikely) for them to gather in localized hot spots within the processing tanks and reach dangerous critical mass. Even if the economic hurdles and safety issues are overcome, the inherent nature of reprocessing sites and the substantial quantity of nuclear fuel within their walls could leave them vulnerable to direct attacks from terrorist groups or the theft of still-fissionable nuclear material. It would be foolish to think an attack making use of nuclear material en route for reprocessing would not be devastating. Even if the attackers failed to turn stolen spent fuel into a high-power nuclear weapon, threats will forever loom from less scientifically advanced attacks stemming from the addition of radioactive waste into an existing explosive device or a strike on a nuclear reprocessing facility that would turn the entire site into an unconventional dirty bomb. Such an attack could exact minimal physical damage and still render the surrounding area unfit for habitation for many years. The psychological toll would be unlike any disaster seen in the Western Hemisphere, with hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to decontaminate and clean the area and tremendous upheaval as several generations would find their lives and homes severely impacted in a single attack. These fears are not merely the creation of a post-9/11 think tank but are a hypothetical plague that has occupied the highest office in the land for six decades. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter halted reprocessing of plutonium and spent nuclear fuel during their terms in office in an effort to stop the spread of national nuclear weapons programs and clandestine attempts to secure a nuclear device across the globe—a fear bolstered by ongoing tensions in India and Iran during the late 1970s.
President Ronald Reagan lifted this ban during his tenure, only to have his successor, George H. W. Bush, prevent New York’s Long Island Power Authority from teaming with the French government–owned corporation Cogema to process reactor fuel. President William J. Clinton followed Bush’s lead, while President George W. Bush went on to embrace nuclear reprocessing by forming the sixteen-country Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and encouraging private corporations to develop new reprocessing technology.5 This trend of “stop-start” policy on the matter reversed once again with President Barack Obama, who signaled what appears to be the death knell for commercial nuclear processing in the United States, at least for the first half of the twenty-first century. Fiscal concerns informed his decision to cancel plans to build a large-scale nuclear reprocessing facility in 2009 and a South Carolina reprocessing site in 2014. At the moment, the United States does not reprocess reactor fuel previously used to generate power for public consumption; it instead chooses to focus recycling efforts on radioactive materials created in the course of scientific research. Regardless of one’s personal political views, the reticence of five presidents to pursue nuclear processing—Ford, Carter, G. H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama—should be a sign to those championing the cause of nuclear processing. Financial issues aside, concentrating large amounts of nuclear material in one area, no matter how secure, with hundreds, if not thousands, of workers coming in contact with the material makes the site ripe for thievery and attack. Acquisition of radioactive material by clandestine individuals is not isolated to action movie plots and Tom Clancy novels but is a plausible threat. A dirty bomb has yet to be detonated anywhere in the world, thankfully confining these radiological weapons to movies and novels, wherein the bombs play the role of an all-too abundant plot device and source of melodrama. The most feeble of dirty bombs needs only a sufficient source of radioactive waste and an explosive device to disperse the waste in order to render a location unfit for years.
Almost every step of a reprocessing effort creates additional radioactive waste. Liters upon liters of strong acids and harsh carcinogenic solvents are used en route to reclaiming metallic uranium and plutonium that can used in a new way. This “new” waste created in the dissolving states contains only a fraction of the radioactivity in a sample of reactor-grade uranium, but nevertheless, the radioactive waste must be locked away until the natural decay of radiation over time occurs.
in the process it is possible to create considerable quantities waste.
A metric ton of fuel rod waste contains four to five kilograms of recoverable rare metals, making the effort worthwhile in dire circumstances.
If you are devious and looking for a way to swindle people out of gold, tungsten sounds really great at this point, right? One big problem lies in the path for any would-be gold counterfeiter—tungsten metal is grayish-white, a very different hue than traditional yellow gold. A visual problem such as this can be rectified with willpower and a drill, leading gold-adulterers to hide tungsten metal within solid-gold objects to create a passable fake. Reports of precious metal traders learning they were scammed by keen counterfeits of one-kilogram gold bars with newly drilled holes filled with tungsten prior to the transaction are popping up in China, Australia, and New York City, a sordid trend brought about in recent years by the astronomical run-up in the price for gold.8 The gold removed from the bar then enters the pocket of the driller, while the bar is passed along to an uninformed buyer at its normal face value. Tales of tungsten bars coated with twenty-four-carat gold also swirl, with purchasers learning of their exceptional misfortune when the top layer peels away like the gold foil covering a chocolate bar.
The cost of melting down zinc and a smidgen of copper (pennies have gone from being made entirely of copper up until 1982 to less than 3% copper currently), parceling it out into discs, stamping the visage of our 16th president on the face, and trucking rolls of the coin from the mint averages two per every penny created. In this case, the seigniorage is a net loss for the Treasury Department, as the department loses a little less than a cent on each newly minted penny, and the net loss continues with the nickel, with eleven cents’ worth of materials, wages, and machine upkeep going into creating each one.
All the gold-plated tungsten items are sold as fakes, but they improve upon techniques used in sordid deals of counterfeit bars. These commercially manufactured and advertised “fake” tungsten-core coins are currently seen as a blight by the coin-collecting and gold-trading community, but someone with an ultrasonic or x-ray fluorescence detector could always use one of these elaborately produced plated coins to test the device in question. If you are a pessimist, the fake coins may turn out to be useful if you lack the financial assets to hoard gold and live your life prepping for an imminent worldwide financial collapse or natural disaster. Gold is desired foremost among precious metals due to historical and traditional sentiment. In a rebooted world where those bargaining for goods lack any sort of detection devices, the look and feel of gold may be all you need. Corporations and nations seek out rare and scarce metals for their value, their ability to improve human life.
Thallium became so popular as a murder weapon that the chemical earned the name “inheritance powder” in the dawn of the Industrial Revolution due to the metal’s dubious link to convenient deaths benefiting wealthy heirs. When used for ill intent, thallium is dosed not as a spoonful of metal shavings but in the form of the crystalline thallium sulfate. By itself, thallium metal will not dissolve readily in water, making it difficult to hide this form of the poison in a drink. On the other hand, thallium sulfate retains the poisonous characteristics of thallium while behaving similarly to table salt, sodium chloride, bestowing upon the substance a crystalline appearance at room temperature while making the chemical far more concealable. This form is still quite potent, as less than a single gram of thallium sulfate is enough to kill an adult. Availability mingled with potency and concealment combine to make thallium sulfate an excellent murder weapon. Prior to 1972, thallium sulfate sat on the shelves of supermarkets across the United States as the main ingredient in commercial rat killers. Thallium ends life by forcing the body to shut down as it takes the place of potassium in any number of the body’s cellular reactions and physiochemical processes. Once ingested, the poisonous compound thallium sulfate dissolves, separating the thallium atoms and allowing the metal to enter the bloodstream. The body then begins to incorporate thallium into molecular-level events needed to maintain proper working order, and that’s where trouble begins. Thallium atoms are remarkably similar in size to potassium atoms, and this is a problem for the human body. Potassium is a vital part of energy-manufacturing mechanisms and a gatekeeper for a number of cellular channels. Due to similarity between the size and charge of thallium and potassium, the body confuses the metals and allows thallium to substitute for potassium. Unfortunately, this substitution is a deadly one, leading to a shutdown of a number of delicate submicroscopic events that brings about death in a handful of weeks. Erosion of fingernails and hair loss are two prominent late-stage flags denoting thallium poisoning, with the first signs of hair loss showing as soon as a week after consumption of the poison. If you are poisoned with thallium and do not die from acute kidney failure or its complications within a few weeks, your way of life will likely be changed forever, thanks to recurring dates with a dialysis machine.
Swiss scientists studying the exhumed body of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in November of 2010 found nearly 20 times the baseline amount of polonium in his bones, along with traces of the radioactive element in his clothes and the soil where he was laid to rest. Arafat died in 2004 from what is described as a stroke by his attending physician after a bout with the flu characterized by vomiting—a symptom that plagued Litvinenko immediately after his poisoning. The discovery of such a large concentration of polonium has changed the way historians and political scientists view Arafat’s death, this finding fostering a growing movement to paint it as murder by an unknown culprit. This is not the first intimation of foul play surrounding Arafat’s death: his former adviser Bassam Abu Sharif publicly accused Israeli intelligence operatives of poisoning the Palestinian figurehead’s medicine and placing thallium in his food and drinking water.
The title “wonder drug” is thrown around frequently in the pharmaceutical world, but a small-molecule drug that can effectively treat lung, ovarian, bladder, cervical, and testicular cancer with fewer side effects than radiotherapy? The integration of platinum atoms in a small molecule to create a drug yields a tool effective at treating a wide variety of cancers. Cis-diamminedichloroplatinum(II), which moonlights as the much-easier-to-say trade name cisplatin, is a simple molecule at the forefront of cancer treatment starring a single atom of platinum at its core. Structurally cisplatin is a quite simple molecule featuring chlorine, nitrogen, and hydrogen oriented at ninety-degree angles around a platinum core. Making cisplatin is not difficult; the reaction requires only four steps, with the difficulty of the synthesis on par with a typical lab session from an undergraduate student’s sophomore year. The high cost of the platinum materials, however, keep the metal out of the teaching labs of even the most wealthy universities due to perceived waste and the thought that a devious lab student might run off with a bottle of platinum tetrachloride in the hope of purifying the platinum metal within. The discovery of cisplatin’s important role in the war on cancer came about as many great scientific achievements do—by complete accident. In a 1965 study of Escherichia coli bacteria—the fecal matter component and model bacteria most often used by researchers—a trio of Michigan State University scientists observing the impact of electrical fields on bacteria noted that their cell samples quit replicating, an outcome that failed to correlate with their experimental logic. Like all good scientists, the researchers went into detective mode and began mentally dissecting every part of their experimental setup. Their in-depth look revealed that the platinum metal used in the electrodes to create their experimental electrical fields was being leached slowly into the bacteria’s growth medium, inadvertently dosing the bacteria with platinum and causing the E. coli to grow to phenomenal sizes and bypass the life checkpoints that would trigger a fission process to create new cells. While the trio did not come across any interesting happenings when they placed their precious E. coli in a variety of electrical fields, they did discover that platinum could prevent bacteria from reproducing. The finding was warmly received by the medical world and led to the incorporation of cisplatin in cancer treatment by the end of the next decade. Cisplatin brings about apoptosis in cancer cells shortly after reacting with the cell’s DNA. Once bound to DNA, the information-carrying molecule becomes cross-linked and thus unable to divide—a step necessary for the cell to undergo its form of reproduction: fission. If tumor cells cannot reproduce, the runaway train of unbounded growth is halted. Cisplatin’s effect on DNA can also have another cancer-fighting effect—the wholesale destruction of cancer cells. Cells can stimulate the repair of DNA after determining that it can no longer divide, however, once the repair efforts are unsuccessful—thanks to the presence of cisplatin—the cell starts its own self-destruction sequence—apoptosis—resulting in the destruction of the tumor cell. If apoptosis can be successfully triggered in enough cancer cells, the tumor will begin to shrink. Patients given cisplatin and two other drugs making use of similar platinum chemistry to achieve the same result—carboplatin and oxaliplatin—experience fewer side effects than those who are treated with radioactive materials, making the pharmaceutical a great option since it gained approval from the Federal Drug Administration in 1978. The popularity of platinum in cancer treatment led medical researchers to investigate the possibility of antitumor properties in rhodium and ruthenium, metals often used in conjunction with platinum in catalytic converters, but with little success due to unforeseen toxic effects not observed with cisplatin.
Tantalum is a corrosion-proof metal used to increase the efficiency of capacitors—a useful application that has allowed mobile devices to shrink in size or increase in processing power at a rapid pace in the past decade. Tantalum is found alongside the metals tin and tungsten,
Sadly, tantalum mining funded rebel factions during the Second Congo War (1998–2003), the bloodiest war since World War II, with five million people killed as a result of the fighting.
In a disturbing nod to the current strife surrounding tantalum, the metal’s name comes from the disturbing tale of the Greek mythological figure Tantalus. Tantalus’s life was awful—he lived in the deepest corner of the underworld, Tartarus, where he cut up and cooked his son Pelops as a sacrifice to the gods. His sins did not end there, however, as Tantalus forced the gods to unwittingly commit cannibalism by dining on Pelops’s appendages. To punish Tantalus for this gruesome gesture, the gods condemned him to a state of perpetual longing and temptation by placing him in a crystalline pool of water near a beautiful tree with low-hanging fruit. Whenever Tantalus raised his hands to grasp a piece of fruit to eat, the delicate branches would move to a position just of out of reach; whenever he dipped down for a drink, the water pulled back from his cupped hand. Mythological lore finishes this mental image of eternal temptation by suspending a massive stone above Tantalus. He was condemned to a world of immense desires constantly within reach but of which he was forever unable to partake, leaving him to perpetually starve against a backdrop of plenty.
Coal naturally contains uranium—one to four parts per million. This is not a lot of uranium, but it is a quantifiable amount of the radioactive material nonetheless. A heavy-duty train car like the BNSF Railway Rotary Open Top Hopper can carry a hundred tons of coal, with a hundred similar cars linked together for a total just over ten thousand tons. This run-of-the-mill train sounds a good bit more ominous with a quick calculation using the parts per million of the uranium in coal. After a few minutes of number crunching, the sensationalist could claim that the bituminous coal train is carrying between 20 to 80 pounds of uranium, and this hypothetical individual, in the midst of making a hysteria-inducing statement, would be correct. Although the movement of 80 pounds of uranium across the heartland of the United States resembles a plot point from a spy movie, black helicopters filled with FBI and Homeland Security agents will not be descending on the trains of North America anytime soon, because the uranium is safely split between millions of pieces of coal spread throughout the train. This is the same dispersal pattern we see with the distribution of rare earth metals in rocks and quarries. During World War II the United States and Germany did not destroy their coal mines to get a small allowance of uranium to use in the building of nuclear bombs—the coal by itself is far more valuable. Instead, these countries looked to well-known deposits featuring high concentrations of uranium to build their stockpiles.
Concentrated deposits of metals—often the only deposits worth mining—are created over millions of years.
The majority of the rare earth metals, including two of the most useful, niobium and tantalum, are found in igneous rock, leading to several theories that place the origin of rocks containing these metals in the slow release of rare earth element–rich magma from chambers deep below the surface of the earth. The formation could have taken place underground as small portions of magma exited the chamber and cooled slowly, or as the magma pushed through the surface and became the lava flows often associated with volcanic activity.
China’s available supply of rare metals rivals the material wealth of oil underneath the sands of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. A crippling share of the planet’s supply of rare earth metals is in China—the United States Geological Survey estimates more than 96% of the available supply of these metals is centered within its boundaries, leaving the rest of the world to fend for crumbs under their borders or to rely on Chinese-manufactured products.
The minerals containing tantalum, niobium, and other rare metals likely accumulated over the course of a four-hundred-million-year span in the Middle Proterozoic period,
While we will never truly know how such substantial quantities of varied metals gathered in this section of Inner Mongolia, a number of theories are bandied about by geologists.
The shuffling of Earth’s tectonic plates and the movement of lava during the periods of geologic tumult that characterized formation of our planet’s landmasses is central to the most prominent theories, with the possibility that the movement of magma could have triggered hydrothermal vents that pelted the earth at Bayan Obo with metals brought from deep below the surface. The rare metals present at Bayan Obo, and throughout the world, are found in the repeating, organized forms of familiar chemical compounds. These molecules typically consist of two atoms of the metal joined by three atoms of oxygen, with variations of the number of metal and oxygen atoms present. This odd couple forms a very stable type of chemical compound, the oxide. Thanks to this combination of metal and oxygen, the molecules are readily taken into mineral deposits. This stroke of luck is not without its own problems, however: the metals must be separated from oxygen before we can use them.
Despite its vast mineral wealth, Bayan Obo is far from the only reason China rose to dominate the rare earth markets during the first decade of the 21st century. Selling at astonishingly low prices is the clever move that made China the undisputed source for rare earths. By taking advantage of the abundant supply at Bayan Obo, Chinese production of these metals all but ran the previous corporate leaders in the United States and Australia from the world market. Within a decade and a half this economic plan guided countries and corporations to the cheap and available supply of Bayan Obo, soon putting each at the mercy of China’s economic and political policies. A brilliant yet simple tactic effectively yielding a sea change normally only brought about through the devastation of a war, but in this case it occurred without a single shot being fired. This brand of economic policy is convincing foreign corporations in Japan and the USA to open manufacturing plants and offices within China’s borders in hope of securing favor and a continuous supply of the rare metals they can rely on in manufacturing. Corporations willing to make the jump into China’s metal market are also positioning themselves wisely in the event that China radically increases export taxes on its metal supply, an ever-looming possibility that could destabilize market sectors overnight.
Will we see a day when the dependence on China for rare earth metals ceases? Not likely. The supply of rare earth metals could last several decades if not longer if China exercises wisdom in domestic and foreign economic policy. The rest of the world has little recourse in the face of price increases, as any cache of commercially viable rare metals would likely cost more to retrieve than those sold by corporations inside China. Even if countries drew the political ire of China or simply decided to forge their own path by exploring and making use of a newly found untapped deposit of metals within their borders, it could take well over a decade and phenomenal expense before a semblance of self-sufficiency is actually achieved.
North America has a few rare earth metal mining sites, with the crown jewel being the oft-maligned Mountain Pass site deep in California’s Mojave Desert. The Mountain Pass site looks nothing like the series of caves and tunnels often associated with coal or gold mining. Molycorp’s prize, a gem tucked in the middle of the California sprawl and seventy-five miles from the nearest city, is more rock quarry than classical mine, with this hole in the face of the earth growing larger, one transit ring at a time as rocks containing mineral ore are transferred from the bottom to the surface and then to processing plants.
Mountain Pass performed well as the United States’ key source of rare metals well into the late 1990s, when two factors led to the closure of the site. China’s meteoric rise as a rare earth manufacturer came at the expense of Mountain Pass’s supply. Chinese corporations flooded the market with inexpensive rare earth metals, softening the international market for rare earths to the extent that it was no longer cost effective to maintain Mountain Pass.
Mountain Pass came under intense public scrutiny in 1997 after a series of environmental incidents. Chief among these problems were seven spills that sent a total of three hundred thousand gallons of radioactive waste emanating from Mountain Pass across the Mojave Desert. Cleanup of these spills cost Chevron 185 million dollars, sending the United States’ most fruitful rare earth metal mine into a death spiral.
The mine stayed dormant until the price of rare earths increased in the past decade, when Chevron sold the mine to Molycorp, which spent an estimated 500 million dollars to resume operations. A risky move, but one with an underlying sense of wisdom if Mountain Pass could return to its former glory. Stating that keeping a corporation, its workers, and shareholders afloat in the rare earth mining industry is an arduous task would be an enormous understatement. Mining is a difficult if not damned industry, one where profit margins are eternally slim and political events can change the world stage in a handful of days, if not overnight. Before Molycorp and other mining entities can earn a single dollar, the corporations must find and acquire a mineral-rich site, tear the prized rocks from the crust of the earth, and then carry out 30-plus refining steps to isolate a single rare earth metal. The financial markets of the world continue to fluctuate the entire time, with minor changes bringing about a sea change in the mining world as commodity prices fluctuate wildly.
For example, what if the state-owned corporate entities of China are encouraged by the nation’s government to limit exports to North America and Europe? Prices soar the next morning, quickly eating up every kilogram a company has in its reserves. But what about the opposite scenario—a private mining corporation announces the discovery of an unexplored cache of bastnäsite in Scotland? Prices plummet, and corporations across the world are forced to limit mining and processing efforts to ensure a market glut years in the future will not kill the industry.
Gold, platinum, tantalum, and several other rare and valuable metals are used in small quantities in smartphones and computers, but the employee skill sets and time necessary to obtain and refine these metals often makes metal-specific recycling efforts cost prohibitive.
Why are jewelry-grade precious metals used in electronics? It’s a simple answer—using the metals makes your electronics faster, more stable, and longer lasting. For example, gold is a spectacular conductor. As an added benefit, the noble metal doesn’t corrode, so gold-plated electronics do not experience a drop-off in efficiency over time. Gold is plated on HDMI cables and a plethora of computer parts in a very thin layer—a thickness commonly between three and fifteen micrometers (there are a thousand micrometers in a millimeter, if it has been a while since you’ve darkened the halls of a chemistry or physics department). This very thin, very light superficial coating—thinner than a flimsy plastic grocery store bag—is enough to enhance the efficiency of signal transfer, making it worthwhile to use gold over cheaper metals with similar behavior, like copper or aluminum.
The amateur scientists looking to recover gold and platinum from computer parts are not too different from the elderly men and women clad in socks and sandals who wander along beaches combing the sands with a small shovel and metal detector in hand. There is one major difference between these two groups of treasure seekers, however. Those performing at-home recycling and recovery from computer parts know where their treasure lies; it’s just a matter of performing a series of chemical reactions to retrieve the desired precious metals.
A number of companies sell precious metal recycling and refining kits on the Internet, with prices starting as low as seventy dollars, provided the amateur recycler already owns a supply of protective equipment and personally manages chemical waste disposal. More expensive kits make use of relatively safer electrolysis reactions—similar to the hair-removal method touted in pop-up kiosks at shopping malls. This slightly safer method brings with it a much higher price tag, with retail starter kits beginning in the $600 range before rising to several thousand dollars. This high price is the cost of doing business for someone with time and (literally) tons of discarded computer equipment to refine,
While the “scorched-earth” hobbyist approaches used by Ron and Anthony are dangerous, the Third World equivalent is disturbingly post-apocalyptic. Venturing into mountains of discarded monitors, desktop towers, and refrigerators, children and teenagers fight over sun-and-rain-exposed electronic parts in search of any metals—
Once electronic waste is deposited in the landfills of poor villages, the waste will not stay there for long. Locals in Accra and numerous small towns spread across India and China learned of the possibilities for parts from abandoned computer monitors, televisions, and towers and, like the hobbyists mentioned earlier, took up efforts to retrieve the precious components. In a society where economic prosperity and annual average incomes are measured in the hundreds and not tens of thousands of dollars, the few dollars one might make during a twelve-hour foray through massive piles of rubbish is well worth the effort and risk. The electronics wastelands littered throughout developing countries could not exist, however, without complicit partners in the destination countries. How do these relationships begin?
TOOLS OF THE POOR Those who choose to make a living by retrieving electronic waste from dumps, tearing the equipment down, and refining the rare metals found within them are exposed to many of the same hazards as our hypothetical hobbyists, but on a much higher scale. While inquisitive First World hobbyists like Anthony and Ron refine scrap for fun in their spare time, a recycler in the developing world performs the same work but for 12 to 14 hours a day and with minimal protective equipment due to the prohibitive cost of respirators, gloves, and goggles. They carry out these activities in an even more dangerous environment as well, exposing themselves to the physical hazards of landfills before the first step of metal recovery begins. Their tools are often crude. Workers place the metals in clay kilns or stone bowls and heat them over campfires. Heating the refuse loosens the solder present on many electronic parts—solder that is typically made of lead and tin. Children huddle over the fire as the scraps are heated to the point where the solder is liquefied and a desired component can be pulled away for further processing. The cathode-ray tubes in older computer monitors—an item not even contemplated for recovery by First World hobbyists because of the danger and minimal reward—are boons for profit-seeking recyclers in the developing world. Tube monitors contain large amounts of lead dust—as much as seven pounds of lead in some models—and at the end of these fragile tubes is a coveted coil of copper. While copper is not the most precious of metals, it is valuable due to its many applications, turning the acquisition of one of these intact copper coils into a windfall for a working recycler. Smashing a monitor to retrieve the coil often involves shattering the lead-filled cathode ray-tube, doing a phenomenal amount of environmental damage while covering the worker with millions of lead particulates. What is done with the unwanted scrap after the useful parts are plucked out is another problem altogether. In many situations, unwanted pieces are gathered into a burn pile and turned to ash, emitting harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. What remains in solid form is often deposited in waterways—Mother Nature’s trashcan—and coastal areas. There is rarely a municipal waste system in place to recover the unwanted scraps in these villages, and years of workers dumping broken and burnt leftovers into local streams has contaminated the soil and local water supply. Drinking water is already trucked into the recycling village of Guiyu from a nearby town due to an abundance of careless dumping. Cleaning the water system would likely be too costly and a losing battle if the landfill recyclers are unwilling to change their ways. The physiological impact of recycling electronic waste has been best studied among the inhabitants of China’s Guiyu village. Academic studies show children in Guiyu to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, leading to a decrease in IQ along with an increase in urinary tract infections and a sixfold rise in miscarriages.6 Many of the young workers flocking to the landfills feel compelled to sift through the electronic waste in order to provide for their elders under China’s one-child policy, a policy placing an undo financial burden on the current generation. In addition to complications from lead exposure, hydrocarbons released into the air during the burning of waste have led to an uptick in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory problems, as well as permanent eye damage. Fixing the long-term electronic waste problem in these villages is a complicated and costly proposition. Apart from a generation of children poisoned and possibly lost, this is a relatively new revenue source, with the oldest of the children involved just now entering their thirties. The area of Guiyu was once known for its rice production, but a decade of pollution stemming from electronic waste dumping and refining has rendered the area unfit for agriculture.
Tantalum is particularly coveted for its use in electronics. The metal is stable up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature well within the range of most industrial or commercial uses of the element. It works as an amazing capacitor, allowing for the size of hardware to become smaller—an evergreen trend in the world of consumer electronics. Tantalum is also useful for its acoustic properties, with filters made with the metal placed in smartphone handsets to increase audio clarity by reducing the number of extraneous frequencies. The metal can also be used to make armor-piercing projectiles. A run-of-the-mill smartphone has a little over 40 milligrams of tantalum—a piece roughly half the size of a steel BB gun pellet when one accounts for the variation in density between the metals.
Ammonium nitrate is a small molecule used as a fertilizer that can also be incorporated into explosive devices. Karzai enacted the ban in the hope of making it more difficult for the Taliban and other groups to fashion homemade explosive devices used to kill NATO troops stationed in the region. Once denied access to ammonium nitrate, farmers in Afghanistan noted an astonishing drop-off in crop yields, yet they received little to no help from the Afghan government to transition away from the use of ammonium nitrate after the ban. Farmers harvesting a nine-hundred-pound-prune yield the previous year saw their yields plummet to one hundred and fifty pounds after Karzai’s ban. A drop in yields of as little as 5 or 10% in a developed country would be very damaging to its financial bottom line, but in a country in which 36% of its people live at or below the poverty line, the absence of ammonium nitrate is downright devastating. Farmers either had to raise the price of their produce or make the move to illegal opium farming to make a living. The allure of opium is, pardon the pun, intoxicating. Raw opium sells for several hundred dollars per pound, and with a probable harvest of roughly fifty pounds of poppies per acre, the attraction is strong for even the most pious of farmers.
While farmers suffered, the Taliban simply turned to a source not subject to Karzai’s ban to construct explosives: potassium chlorate, a chemical used in textile mills across the region. In addition, national and local government efforts to reduce environmental damage continually ran afoul of the Afghan people, including an environmentally conscious ban on the use of brick kilns and an effort to limit automobile traffic in the populous city of Mazar-e Sharif. While their intentions were no doubt noble, the actions were shortsighted and resulted in decreased income for the vast numbers of the less well-off living and working in the city. These are excellent examples of the troubles such a developing country faces as it tries to advance its economy and infrastructure while at the same time doing minimal damage to the environment, a problem that continues to plague Afghanistan as the country tries to make the most of its vast resources. And when government mandates fail or a situation is in need of an immediate response, there is little money available to develop a solution. Erosion and deforestation are blights on the already parched earth of Afghanistan, turning more and more useful acreage into the desert that already covers the majority of the country. A 2012 initiative through Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency set aside six million dollars to fight climate change and erosion, an embarrassingly small sum to dedicate to preserving the farmland that provides the livelihood for 79% of the country’s people.
Weak electrical system plagues the country as it lurches into the third decade of the twenty-first century. Blackouts limit the access of electricity in a significant portion of the country to a mere one to two hours a day, putting modern necessities like refrigeration out of reach. Industrial efforts are also stymied by breakdowns in the electrical system, with money lost and manufacturing forced to halt production due to frequent electrical outages.
Nine years into the United States’ war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon released the results of the US Geological Survey operation carried out to observe and catalog the potential rare earth resources in Afghanistan. The fabled 2010 report—already bolstered by rumors of a Pentagon memorandum christening Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium”—revealed a treasure trove of previously unknown mineral resources including gold, iron, and rare earth metals. Early speculation placed a one-trillion-dollar value on the accessible deposits, but there is a substantial problem—Afghanistan lacks sufficient modern mining technology to tackle retrieval efforts. Separate estimates made by Chinese and Indian interests dwarf the figure, placing the mineral wealth of Afghanistan closer to three trillion dollars.
The wealth reported in 2010 is likely a continuation of the work carried out by the US Geological Survey Mineral Resources Project, which aided members of Afghanistan’s sister group, the Afghanistan Geological Survey, from 2004 to 2007, to help the country’s government determine a workable baseline of their mineral wealth.18 While cynicism often reigns when we look at North American incursion into Afghanistan, this may not have been a solely profit-minded gesture, as the USGS also teamed up with the Afghan government to assess earthquake hazards as well as to catalog oil and gas resources in the country during the same time period.
The United States cannot produce useful quantities of eight of the 17 elements commonly labeled as rare earth metals—terbium, dysprosium, holmium, europium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium—because they simply do not exist within our borders.
According to the US Department of Defense, high-purity beryllium is necessary to “support the defense needs of the United States during a protracted conflict,” but procuring a supply is not easy. Making a case for the defense industry’s reliance on beryllium is easy. No fewer than five US fighter craft, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will be employed by the United States, Japan, Israel, Italy, and five other countries over the next several decades, rely on beryllium to decrease the mass of their frames in order to allow the nimble movements that make the planes even more deadly. Copper-beryllium alloys are a crucial component of electrical systems within manned craft and drones, along with x-ray and radar equipment used to identify bombs, guided missiles, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The metal also has a use far removed from such high-tech applications. Mirrors are fashioned out of beryllium and used in the visual and optical systems of tanks because it makes the mirrors resistant to vibrational distortion. High-purity beryllium is worth just under half a million dollars per ton when produced domestically, with Kazakhstan and Germany supplying the only significant amounts to the United States through import. In 2008 the Department of Defense approved the construction of a high-purity beryllium production plant in Ohio after coming to the conclusion that commercial domestic manufacturers could not supply enough of the processed metal for defense applications nor did sufficient foreign suppliers exist. While the plant in Ohio is owned by a private corporation, Materion, the Department of Defense is apportioned two-thirds of the plant’s annual output.
Lanthanum is the key component of nickel-metal hydride, with each Toyota Prius on the road requiring twenty pounds of lanthanum in addition to two pounds of neodymium. Like many of the rare earth metals, lanthanum is not as rare as the description would suggest; it is the separation and extraction of lanthanum that complicates matters and thereby results in the metal’s relative scarcity. With the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Motors’ Roadster becoming trendy choices for new car buyers, the need for lanthanum will remain and no doubt grow in the foreseeable future. The metal will become even more relevant as automobile manufacturers push the limits of battery storage, an effort that will require significantly more lanthanum for each car rolling off the assembly line.
In liquid fuel reactors, energetic uranium compounds are mixed directly with water, with no separation between nuclear fuel and coolant. Liquid fuel reactors can make use of lesser-quality uranium and appear to be safer at first glance because the plants do not need to operate under high pressure to prevent water from evaporating. On the downside, they pose an even larger contamination and waste storage problem than conventional solid fuel reactors. Since there is no separation between the cooling waters and uranium, much more waste is produced, waste that, in theory, must be stored for tens of thousands of years in geological repositories before the murky waters no longer pose a danger.
Thorium power plants would need constant maintenance and a highly skilled set of workers on around-the-clock watch to oversee energy production. This is not to say solid fuel nuclear power plants are worry-free, but the solid fuel plant is the comfortable dinner-and-a-movie alternative to taking a high-maintenance individual out for a night on the town. Why would molten salt plants need constant observation? Thorium molten salt reactors create poisonous xenon gas, a contaminant that must be monitored and removed to maintain safe and efficient energy generation. Because of this toxic by-product, a thorium molten salt reactor would not succeed with just a technician overseeing a thoroughly automated plant but would require a squad of highly educated and dedicated engineers analyzing data and making changes around the clock. Luckily, most of the world’s current power plant employees are quite educated, but the act of retraining each and every worker is a substantial barrier that prevents the switch to thorium fuel plants in North America.
No country currently possesses a functional thorium plant, but China is on the inside track thanks to an aggressive strategy that aims to begin electricity generation by the second half of this decade. India is committed to generating energy using thorium as well, aiming to make use of their own extensive thorium reserves to meet 30% of their energy needs by 2050.
NEODYMIUM AND NIOBIUM
Neodymium—one of the two elements derived from Carl Gustaf Mosander’s incorrect, but accepted, discovery of didymium in 1841—is the most widely used permanent magnet, with the rare earth metal being found in hard drives and wind turbines as well as in lower-tech conveniences like the button clasp of a purse. Along with the rare earth metal neodymium, niobium metal magnets are becoming increasingly necessary in recreational items, in particular, safety implements, electronics, and the tiny speakers contained in the three-hundred-dollar pair of headphones
Niobe is known as the daughter of Tantalus (for whom the rare metal element tantalum is named). Like her father, she is a thorn in the side of the gods.
Niobe is lucky in one part of life—she is the mother of 50 boys and 50 girls, and she takes a considerable amount of pride from this fact. Her pride is too much for Apollo and Artemis to take—the mythological super couple are only able to bear a single boy and girl, and when Niobe gloats in their midst, Apollo and Artemis slay all 100 of Niobe’s offspring. Mass murder is not enough to quench the godly anger in this bummer of a story, as Apollo and Artemis take the scenario one step further and turn Niobe into stone.
Niobium, a metal typically used to make extremely strong magnets, is also quite stable and has the added bonus of mild hypoallergenic properties—a boon to the medical world in which niobium became an obvious choice for use in implantable devices, specifically pacemakers.
Magnetism and electricity go hand in hand in modern life—magnetic fields affect electrical fields and vice versa. This connection is used to create superconducting magnets, which run electrical current through metal coils to generate the strongest magnetic fields possible with our current understanding of technology. Using a wire made of a permanent magnet, like neodymium, turns the basic run-of-the-mill electromagnet into a superconducting one.
Greenland has long been hypothesized to have rich resources of the metals, but any and all attempts at commercial mining have been halted because uranium is commonly discovered during excavations of rare earth metals. Once Greenland’s parliament overturned legislation banning the extraction of uranium, the parliament also freed up the country for mining of treasure troves of rare earth metals.
While pearls can be grown and harvested in a few short years, polymetallic nodules grow a mere half an inch in diameter over the course of a million years—not exactly the timetable we see with renewable resources. Once the last manganese nodule is harvested and refined, that will be the end of underwater rare metal mining.
When nodule mining becomes a reality, the process will build upon the existing foundation put in place through the underwater mining of diamonds. The De Beers Corporation currently operates five full-time vessels for this purpose, with all five dedicated to sifting through shallow sediment beds off the coast of the African country of Namibia. The German-based company found underwater operations far more efficient than above-ground mining efforts, as a fifty-man crew armed with state-of-the-art technology can match the output of three thousand traditional mine workers. Two methods used for underwater diamond mining are directly applicable to retrieving manganese nodules from the ocean floor. Drilling directly into the seabed is a possible retrieval option, with this avenue penetrating deep below the floor to bring up broken-up rock, sediment, and nodules through alien-looking, mile-long tubes. Once the debris is brought to the hull of a mining ship, chemical and physical processes are used sift to through the cargo, with any undesired rock and sediment returned to the bottom of the ocean floor. The second method shuns the use of drilling and instead uses a combination of conveyor belts and hydraulic tubes to cover larger areas than are accessible by drilling.
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