About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who cares about neodymium?

You should. It’s in your CDs and CD player, computer hard drive, TV tube, sunglasses, and cigarette lighter flints. It helps lasers speed communications through fiber optic networks. Neodymium magnets are critical for MRI scanning devices. Loudspeakers, headphones, guitar pick-ups, model airplanes, welder’s goggles all have some. Geologists and astronomers use neodymium and its isotopes to understand the universe around us. But as Americans become more concerned about the price of gasoline and its availability, it is in electric car motors that neodymium makes news.

A typical Prius contains two pounds of neodymium, mostly in magnets that help drive the motor. Where does it come from? Virtually all the world’s neodymium comes from one location: the Bayan Obo Mine in northern China. You can see the mine in Google Earth by searching on "Bayan Obo, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China"—the mine is north of the city. China’s virtual monopoly—and trust me, they know what they have—on this and other rare-earth elements has some car makers worried, enough so that they’re exploring arrangements with Viet Nam and other nations that have smaller, undeveloped supplies of these critical elements.

The U.S. was once the largest producer of rare-earth elements, mostly from one mine in California’s Mojave Desert. But China’s vast reserves catapulted it into first place in 1992, and pretty much put that mine out of business in the late 1990s. The U.S. has had no primary mine production of rare earths since 2002, and imports, 87% from China, account for all our consumption today. The mine at Mountain Pass is mothballed, but prices and worries about supply are encouraging the owners to explore the idea of re-opening it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Accidental disoveries

As a scientist, I appreciate the role of serendipity in discovery, whether in finding an oil field or uncovering the properties of strange compounds and elements. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing What Things Are Made Of was learning about some of the interconnections that led to unexpected modern uses for chemicals.

The element selenium’s photoelectric properties were discovered accidentally by a researcher attempting to improve the electrical conductivity of undersea cables. Englishman Willoughby Smith worked for the Gutta Percha Company—named for the natural rubbery substance used to coat cables—and oversaw cable laying across oceans from the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. Shortly after working on the first cable connection from Java to Darwin, Australia, Smith moved from management to his first love, technical engineering problems. Testing selenium showed it to have erratic properties, unsuitable for his needs. But Smith’s curiosity led to a critical discovery in 1873.

Quote from the book:

Not one to simply cast the selenium aside, Willoughby Smith investigated further – and discovered that the metal’s electrical resistance was proportional to the strength of light falling on a selenium bar.

Selenium is usually a byproduct of copper refining. Consequently, Belgium, with major refining facilities, is the primary source of selenium imports to the U.S., and imports accounted for a third or more of our consumption in the late 1990s (recent figures are not available because there is only one domestic producer, and the data are withheld to avoid disclosing proprietary company information).

Selenium decolorizes glass, gives ruby-red color to plastics, coats photocopier drums, works in electric-eye doors, is a livestock feed supplement, and helps solar cells and anti-dandruff shampoos do their jobs.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thoughts on self-publishing

When I read these days about self-publishing, I have to smile. So many choices – print-on-demand, publish to the web, hire a publisher (which can range from a real vanity press to a clandestine vanity press to some version of “real” publisher).

Way back in the before time, 1994, when I self-published the History of the Earth Perpetual Calendar, I don’t think I even had reliable e-mail, much less 45,300,000 Google hits for the topic of self-publishing. To me, self-publishing meant that I would write it, get the illustrations, do the layout, then somehow get all that to a printer who would print and bind the thing and give it back to me, and then I’d sell them all and retire.

Right. That was all correct except the part about selling them all and retiring.

The biggest challenge, apart from finding money to pay the printer (thanks Mom and Dad), came when I got the 54 cases of books home – four trips in my pick-up to get all 2000 of them. It had been easy to decide to go to a press run of 2000 instead of my initial plan of 1000. One thousand would have cost about $10,000, but 2000 was only $2,000 more. A no-brainer.

After sorting out some issues with the printer (the book is laid out with one page per date in the year, and I might have thought that anyone would know that March 27 is NOT followed by April 6, but no) I had the books. For 16 years now, the boxes and boxes of books have supported a platform for my spare bed—comfortable enough, by most accounts. Even after selling 1,620—which, Google now can tell me, is a pretty decent record for a truly self-published, self-marketed, and self-distributed volume—I still have enough to hold up the mattress, although some of the boxes are empty and in danger of collapse. But then, I don’t get as many visitors to Butte as I did when I lived in Golden, Colorado.

Distribution and sales improved when the Internet arrived and I created my web site in 1997. Ten or twenty sales a month, with the occasional purchase of 10 or even 36 at a whack. A nice mention in the now-defunct Earth magazine helped tremendously, with about 150 sold in a two-month period.

The world of publishing has evolved, no doubt about it. We’ll see what changes are wrought by kindles and nooks and other technologic advances. As for me, I’m really quite happy with my experience as a “traditional” (old-time) self-publisher—and ready to move into whatever realms appear as I try to get What Things Are Made Of published, this time by someone—anyone—else.

Additional interesting takes on self-publishing at Nathan Bransford's blog.

Answer to Dec. 18 Quiz: Of gold, bauxite (aluminum ore), nickel, and tungsten, the U.S. is a net exporter of just one: gold.

Friday, December 18, 2009

About the book

What does an emery board’s rough surface tell us about Africa’s million-years-long collision with Europe? Should an angler worry about the source of the platinum he or she relies on in casting a nylon line? What ancient life form gives us filters for beer? How much of an "American" car is built using minerals imported from elsewhere?

These are the kinds of questions addressed in What Things Are Made Of.

Quote from the book:
Contrast media in medical diagnostic imaging contain as much as 60% iodine, familiar as a disinfectant. Chile’s northern deserts harbor nitrate-rich deposits that also rank as the world’s largest supplies of iodine, even though only about 0.05% of the ore is calcium iodate, Ca(IO3)2.

Fact: In 2005, the U.S. imported 72% of the iodine it consumed.

Quiz: Which of the following do you think the U.S. is self-sufficient in (that is, the U.S. is a net exporter)? Gold, bauxite (aluminum ore), nickel, tungsten. Answer next time!