Book review – The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

7-minute read

Tantalum, tellurium, indium, niobium, germanium, dysprosium, rhenium, yttrium, neodymium, titanium, lithium, tungsten, cobalt. These are but some of the many chemical elements that are collectively known as rare metals. You will probably recognize only a few of them, but trace quantities are in products and structures all around you, making things stronger, faster, and lighter. They are used to make smartphones, laptops, and fibre-optic cables; but also cars, airplanes, and military weapon systems; and even photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. We live in the Rare Metal Age, writes natural resources strategist David S. Abraham here.

I have been meaning to read this book for ages. With the recent publication of Guillaume Pitron’s The Rare Metals War, now is the right time. Thus, this is the first of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

The Elements of Power

The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, written by David S. Abraham, published by Yale University Press in June 2017 (paperback, 319 pages)

Before proceeding, about that name, rare metals. Also known as minor metals, it is a blanket term that includes rare earth elements. And though metallurgists cannot agree on a definition, the Minor Metals Trade Association currently recognizes 49 metals, encompassing pretty much everything that is not a base (e.g. iron or copper) or precious metal (e.g. gold or silver). The rarity can refer to their limited consumption (hundreds vs. millions of tons annually), but also their geological occurrence. Some are scarce, while others are plentiful but so dilute that they rarely can be mined profitably.

Nomenclature aside, there are many reasons why rare metals are exceptional, unpredictable, and troublesome. The Elements of Power explores numerous facets of our use of them, and I found this book to be remarkably balanced and comprehensive in its coverage.

First off, simply developing a mine is not straightforward. Their geology means there are only limited places where a metal can be profitably mined, allowing a few countries or companies to monopolise the world’s supply. This leads to geopolitical tensions, and when China restricted rare earth exports in 2010, it rattled industries around the world.

“Every mineral vein is different and optimising the production process can take years of trial and error.”

Furthermore, extraction and purification are expensive and “[m]any rare metals are so technically challenging for chemists to produce that it is better to think of them as chemical creations rather than geological minerals” (p. 69). Every mineral vein is different and optimising the production process can take years of trial and error. Several decades can pass between a mining company finding willing investors and producing metals. There is no cookbook you can turn to. Well, there is, but even so, a lot of knowledge is hard-earned and jealously guarded. And with rare metal specialists a dying breed due to the lack of dedicated university departments in Europe and the US, there has been a brain-drain towards Asia.

Then there is the lack of openness in the trading sector. Commodity traders are already a shady bunch, but as Abraham’s interviews with anonymous sources reveal, this sector is “a web of small companies of specialty traders“, with materials having to travel “through a murky network of traders, processors, and component manufacturers” (p. 90). There are no exchanges such as for oil with accepted benchmark prices. Business is very much about who you know – backroom deals, smuggling, and distrust are rife. “No one really knows the true size of these markets. Even the U.S. Geological Survey […] won’t hazard a guess […]” (p. 91). And given that many rare metals are recovered as by-products of other mining activities, there is no neat supply-and-demand relationship, resulting in volatile prices.

The economic side of rare metals is, in short, complex. And that is a problem, as we use much. Abraham gives numerous examples of their use in our gadgets, cars, airplanes, and weapons. The iPhone “relies on nearly half the elements on the planet” (p. 2), while “the newest weapon systems like the F-35 are flying periodic tables” (p. 168). And we will need even more in the future for green technologies: for the magnets in wind turbines and the batteries in electric cars. Once Abraham works through these examples, you realise that these technologies are anything but “green”.

“[…] we will need even more [rare metals] in the future for green technologies: for the magnets in wind turbines and the batteries in electric cars. Once Abraham works through these examples, you realise that these technologies are anything but “green””

Mining in general “[…] speeds up otherwise relatively benign natural processes that usually occur over millennia […] (p. 180). Some have even called it planetary plunder. But rare-metal mining is even more taxing on the environment. Abraham describes the different refining steps – the crushing of rock, the leaching of ores using strong acids – highlighting how energy-intensive and polluting these practices are. And in case you are wondering, recycling “[…] is not a panacea. It too has its own environmental consequences […]” (p. 177). Next to the challenges of gathering the waste and getting people to recycle rather than discard, separating complex devices back into their component elements is no less energy-intensive and polluting. An important point Abraham makes is that “the combination of metals in products like batteries and even steel are in far more complex alloys than the finite set found in nature” (p. 190). Often, whether recycling is even possible has simply not been studied yet.

If rare metals are so problematic, can we not just swap one metal for another? The answer is no, but outside material scientists, few understand the subtleties. The performance we now routinely demand from our technology is such that we cannot simply substitute one metal for another without sacrificing performance, affordability, structural integrity, or weight. And what is true of weapons, “[w]ithout some of these minor metals you would have to go back to 1960s or 1970s performance” (p. 166), holds for most applications.

“The performance we now routinely demand from our technology is such that we cannot simply substitute one metal for another without sacrificing performance, affordability, structural integrity, or weight.”

The combination of few mines, opaque and complex supply chains, and the booming demand for these metals makes for a very uncertain future that has analysts and governments concerned. Demand is likely to outstrip supply, at least in the short term: “[…] we could be condemned to a fossil fuel world, if we cannot bolster the rare metal supply lines we need to support our green technologies” (p. 136), warns Abraham. When even the former CEO of mining giant Vale is quoted as saying “[t]he reality is the planet is very small for the number of inhabitants we will see in 2025” (p. 219), I cannot help but wonder how much of this an endless rat race of techno-fixes that are doomed to fail. Nevertheless, Abraham’s envisioned solution is not to shy away from using them but to double down: “to search for more sources, use them more efficiently, and advance our knowledge of geology, metallurgy, and material science” (p. 219).

The Elements of Power tackles this topic from many angles, and Abraham is a knowledgeable guide, not least because of his insider perspective of what is happening in China and Japan. This book was everything I hoped for and provided numerous “aha” moments. If you want to better understand what the deal is with rare metals, this book comes highly recommended.

Can Pitron add to this? I will turn to The Rare Metals War next to find out, but, spoiler alert, the answer is yes. Foremost, Pitron will give you reason to pause and question the cost of the transition to green technologies.


The Elements of Power

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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