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.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I live in a mining town

I live in a mining town. In some ways, the mother of all mining towns—the richest hill on earth, literally, and the only mining camp in the United States that grew into a multi-ethnic metropolis, with close to 100,000 people ninety years ago. In Butte, Montana, gold drew them, silver kept them, and copper made them rich.

When I look out my kitchen window I see a little park, the site of a small mine that shut down in 1910. Its waste rock makes the walls of my basement. And I see a massive headframe, the surface expression of the Anselmo Mine, one that reached 4,301 feet deep and closed in 1959. I’ve met Ed Panisko, a gentle man and a tough miner, the previous resident of my house, who worked in the Anselmo.

What Things Are Made Of didn’t come about because of my living in Butte. It started when I lived in Golden, Colorado, and was mostly an intellectual outgrowth of the perpetual calendar, History of the Earth, created in 1994. But Butte and its people have absolutely fostered and stimulated my work on What Things Are Made Of—in many ways, the core concepts of that book are nowadays right outside my door and in the foreground of my mind as I live and write and walk Butte’s streets.

Mining towns are complex, because they draw a transient population that depends on the vagaries of the mining business. Mineral commodities depend on all the things that drive the world economy. Wars are good (more copper, more iron, more manganese). Housing booms are good (copper pipes for plumbing) and busts are not (less gypsum for sheetrock, less feldspar for toilets). New inventions that connect and help humans are good (copper wires for telephone lines, tungsten for incandescent light filaments, mercury for Dr. Rush’s Thunderclappers, neodymium for electric car batteries). And so go the fortunes of places like Butte or Chuquicamata or Almaden or Bayan Obo or Udachnaya. 

Living in a historically vibrant mining town that today is part of the nation’s largest Superfund site (as well as the nation’s largest National Historic Landmark district) is a huge eye-opener for anyone who is conscious of both the needs for mineral resources and the damage their extraction can create. And, I hope, of the possible ways that damage can indeed be remediated. The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program exploits the historical needs, the damage, and the ongoing restoration, to foster understanding and stewardship in a complex environment. I’m quite proud to have an occasional small role in that organization’s outreach to thousands of K-12 students and teachers.

In Butte, I live at the corner of Quartz and Crystal Streets, a very cool spot for a geologist. That’s one of the aspects of Butte that contributes subliminally to What Things Are Made Of.

I’m a person who craves the frontier. I grew up at a time when the American frontier had evaporated: I tried California’s golden magnet, but the frontier was gone. Space might have worked, but I wasn’t able to be an astronaut. Butte’s history, its color, its intricate flavor, is my personal frontier now. It touches all I do.

Photos by Richard Gibson

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The most valuable mineral commodity

Before you read on, take a guess. What non-fuel mineral commodity adds up to the most valuable mineral industry in the United States? “Non-fuel mineral commodity” means minerals, metals, rocks, natural mineral-rich solutions, stuff taken from the earth other than oil, natural gas, and coal. And not water.

Here’s a hint: it’s not iron ore, not lead, not gold. It’s not silver, aluminum, or copper.

The most valuable mineral commodity was worth more than $13 billion in the U.S. in 2008, but its average price was just $8.98 for a ton. We used almost 1½ billion tons of this common stuff, and had to import a bit (just 2%) of what we used, mostly from Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas.

Every state produces it, from more than 4,000 sites operated by more than 1,600 companies employing more than 80,000 workers. Texas, Pennsylvania, and Missouri are the top three producing states.

This most valuable material declined in use by a third from 2006 to 2009, a statistic that may suggest that its uses relate to factors affected by the recession. Indeed, the greatest use reported for the commodity is in construction, mostly road construction and repair. What is it? Crushed stone.

Monday, January 25, 2010


A 462,000-gallon oil spill such as the one near Port Arthur, Texas, in January 2010 is not a good thing. But it gives a good opportunity for some perspective.

462,000 gallons amounts to not quite one minute’s worth of oil consumption for the United States. As of October 2009, we used up (forever) 546,204 gallons every minute of every day (EIA data), and that's with US consumption down by 2 million barrels a day or so from 2007, thanks to the recession.

In terms of world oil consumption, this spill represents just over 11 seconds in the planet’s oil-guzzling day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Where uranium comes from

You all know what uranium is used for: nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Some volumetrically tiny but nonetheless important uses include x-ray generators, inertial guidance systems, glass coloring agents, and age-dating in geology.

The mystique of secrecy and national security surrounding uranium and its products might lead you to think the United States produces—and jealously guards—all that we need. Nope. Although the U.S. is the consumption leader, using 30% to 40% of world uranium in recent years, U.S. production totals only about 3% of world supply.

In 2008, 85% of U.S. uranium consumption was imported, an import dependency greater than that for oil.

Canada extracts the most uranium of any country, and has the greatest known reserves. Australia is second-place producer, with Kazakhstan, Niger, and Russia in a near-tie for third place. Kazakhstan is second in reserves. The U.S. imports uranium from Canada, Australia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and elsewhere.

Economic viability of uranium mines in the U.S. depends sensitively on the price. Wyoming and New Mexico together have some 700 million pounds of uranium reserves if the price is $50 per pound, but only around 175 million pounds at $30 per pound. In January 2010 the price was $44.50 per pound, but uranium prices from 2004 to 2007 fluctuated widely, from $15 to $138 per pound. Volatile prices are the bane of the mining industry, which requires long lead times, huge up-front investment, and complex infrastructure.

Nuclear power plant image from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Big vs. Little

When I talk to people about natural resources, whether copper or cobalt or indium, a common misconception is that such commodities are evenly distributed across the earth, and we just have to find them—a mineral version of “drill baby drill.”

Countries like the US, Russia, China, Canada, Brazil, and Australia are relatively rich in a wide variety of mineral resources for a simple reason: they’re big. Big enough to have a lot of geology, a lot of environments, a lot of situations where economic mineral deposits can accumulate.

Small countries just don’t have the geologic diversity to be rich in lots of minerals—but lucky geologic accidents do occur, sometimes making a small country the world leader in one or two commodities.

For example, Spain and Italy together account for two-thirds of the world’s reserve base of mercury. Spain’s mercury mines were among the oldest mines of any type in continual operation (since Roman times) when they ceased mining in 2003 because of decreasing demand for mercury. Pumice, a volcanic rock used in building-block construction, spews from volcanoes all over the world, but Greece produces more commercial pumice than any other nation. Finland produces more than a third of the world’s peat. The US imports nearly a million tons of peat annually for horticulture, but next-door Canada is the main supplier rather than Finland.

Botswana’s miners find more gem diamonds than miners elsewhere, at 25 million carats per year, but Russia is a close second with 23 million per year. Botswana and adjacent parts of southern Africa harbor a disproportionate number of kimberlite pipes, unusual igneous rocks that transport diamonds from depths of 150 to 200 km beneath the surface—depths where pressures are great enough to squeeze carbon into diamonds.

Boron—used in glass, ceramics, soap, detergent, bleach, enamel, and other everyday products—comes from many countries (and the US is a net exporter), but the world leader is Turkey. In western Turkey’s Menderes Massif unusual concentrations of tourmaline, a boron mineral that sometimes makes gemstones, give thermal waters their remarkable boron content. Recent faulting seems to provide pathways for the hot water, which serves as a geothermal resource as well as a reservoir for boron.

Gem tourmaline photo from Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, January 15, 2010

You've got gypsum!

Virtually every home in America contains a great volume of one mineral: gypsum, the primary constituent of wallboard.

Gypsum (chemically, calcium sulfate) crystallizes from supersaturated sea or lake water when the water evaporates, much like common salt precipitates from such water. In the United States, Oklahoma is the leading producer of gypsum—nearly 3,500,000 tons of it, worth more than $26 million in 2007.

But wait, you say — Oklahoma is nowhere near an evaporating sea bed, or even a lake! True, but 255,000,000 years ago, Permian time, as dinosaurs were about to begin their long reign, western Oklahoma was indeed a shallow, restricted lagoon or arm of the sea, and the climate was arid along a shoreline not far from the equator. Evaporation happened.

In Oklahoma’s Blaine Formation four to six gypsum layers, each as much as 10 feet thick, separate thin red shale beds. Shale solidifies from mud, and its red color reflects exposure to the atmosphere as evaporation proceeded: the iron in the mud oxidized to hematite—red iron oxide, essentially rust.

In today’s arid Oklahoma, when groundwater dissolves ancient gypsum and re-deposits it, beautiful crystals form. Oklahoma’s official state crystal is selenite, a type of gypsum found most notably at Great Salt Plains State Park near Jet, a town in northwestern Oklahoma.

After Oklahoma, U.S. gypsum production leaders are Arkansas, Iowa, California, Nevada, Texas, Indiana, and Michigan. But our total, nearly 13 million tons a year, can’t satisfy U.S. wallboard demand. Imports, mostly from Canada, Mexico, and Spain, account for more than 25% of US gypsum consumption. As with so many minerals, China leads the world with gypsum production more than triple that of the United States.

Based on What Things Are Made Of, Chapter 1: All The Ships of the World.

Public domain gypsum image via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

About Oil

The elephant in the room when it comes to resources is oil. What Things Are Made Of has a chapter on transportation, and oil is naturally a big part of it. The oil section of my web site has lots of statistics (if you type oil statistics into Google, I come up ahead of the Energy Information Administration!). Today I simply want to make a bullet list of a few interesting observations about oil. Data are from late 2009.

  • The US gets about half its oil and petroleum products imports from the Western Hemisphere. Canada is our #1 supplier.
  • In addition to crude oil at about 8.5 million barrels per day, the US imports about 1,000,000 barrels per day of gasoline (42 million gallons per day) and 2,000,000 barrels per day of other refined petroleum products such as diesel fuel.
  • Only 1.2 gallons per 44 gallons of product made from a 42-gallon barrel of crude oil goes to make chemical feedstocks for plastics, paint, synthetic rubber, and petrochemicals. That’s not quite 3%. (While there may be good reasons for using less plastic, saving enough oil to make the USA oil independent is not one of them.) There’s an internet message going around that says it takes 12 million barrels of oil per year to make all the plastic bags we use. Not true—79% of North American plastic grocery bags are made from natural gas, not oil. Even if it were true, 12 million barrels a year is only 14 hours of total U.S. oil consumption out of the entire year.
  • Platinum, palladium, the rare-earth elements lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium, an unusual clay mineral called halloysite, and natural and synthetic zeolites are among the mineral commodities needed in petroleum refining. America relies on imports for most of these materials: platinum from South Africa, palladium from Russia, rare earths from China. New Mexico supplies the greatest volume of natural zeolites, and one mine in Utah is the world’s largest known deposit of halloysite.
  • The Middle East has something like half to two-thirds of all the oil in the world. Why? It takes several pages in the book to explain in detail, but the simple answer is a series of lucky accidents of geology.
Enough for now—but oil will return to the blog in the future!
Public domain pumpjack image via Wikipedia.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mineral commodities: more information

If you find the topics in this blog interesting, I’d also refer you to two important resources.  Earth Magazine (formerly Geotimes) is a publication of the American Geological Institute. Although it is a trade magazine aimed at geoscientists, its articles are highly readable and informative. There’s a feature called “Mineral Resource of the Month” usually written by mineral commodity specialists with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

To go straight to the source—where I get the figures that let me say we import this much of that mineral from China or wherever—visit the USGS Mineral Commodities Summaries pages.  The data there serve as starting points for What Things Are Made Of. Then I explore questions like “Why does China have such large rare-earth deposits?” or “How did Missouri’s lead ore form?” and “What was the connection between the alum trade and the Pazzi Conspiracy in Renaissance Italy?”

My goal with What Things Are Made Of is to connect the chromium in your stainless-steel fork to its geological origins, its role in history, and its place in a complex, global network of interdependent producers and consumers. And to try to do that for hundreds of things around us every day.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Latest Thing

I monitor various news, geology, and materials sources for hot topics to include in What Things Are Made Of. My latest discovery is a wonderful compound, copper indium gallium diselenide, with the unfortunate acronym CIGS.

Indium, gallium, and selenium often combine to generate light when electricity flows through them—variations on that list, often including arsenic, power lots of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) in all sorts of products from hand-held calculators to traffic signal lights.

Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, announced their brand of CIGS solar panels last October. They aren’t your traditional solar panels—these are thin films encased in plastic that can be embedded in asphalt shingles. Roofing contractors can install them—no need for specialized solar technicians. No offense to solar technicians, but this should make the panels cheaper to install. Dow hasn’t said what they’ll cost, but they should be on the market by mid-2010.

Indium forms few minerals, and most indium is a byproduct of zinc smelting. Indium supply follows the ups and downs of the zinc industry, which in turn depends largely on large-scale steel galvanizing. Industrialization in China and India, calling for more and more galvanized (zinc-coated) steel communication towers and highway barrier systems, isn’t the controlling factor behind zinc consumption, but it is an important aspect of it.

China leads the world in indium production, and also leads in supplying imports to the United States which is 100% dependent on foreign sources for indium. Likewise, virtually all gallium used in the U.S. is imported, in almost equal proportions from China, Ukraine, Germany, and Canada. Processing bauxite to produce aluminum yields most of the world’s gallium. Selenium is also a byproduct, usually of copper refining. One refinery, ASARCO’s 11-acre building near Amarillo, Texas, produces all primary domestic selenium, but the U.S. also imports nearly 600 tons per year, mostly from copper refineries in Belgium.

Some estimates suggest that indium demand could increase ten-fold over the next five years because of increased CIGS solar panel usage. If that happens, look to China for supplies—China produces 58% of the world’s indium, far ahead of #2 Japan (11%). You don’t care about solar cells? How about your flat-panel TV, computer screen, iPod, and other display devices? They all require indium.

Flat-panel image from Wikipedia, under GNU Free Documentation License.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Yes, we have no aluminum (ore)

A friend questioned the quiz answer indicating that the U.S. is 100% dependent on imports for bauxite (photo, right), the only ore of aluminum. He knew that lots of minerals contain aluminum—it’s the third most abundant element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen and silicon. And the rock-forming minerals that contain aluminum are common, ranging from feldspars in granite to clays in fine-grained shale.

So why can’t the U.S. use those aluminum sources, rather than relying 100% on bauxite imports from Jamaica, Guinea, Brazil, Guyana, China, Sierra Leone, and Greece? The simple answer: It’s far too energy-demanding to get the aluminum out of any rock other than bauxite.

Despite aluminum’s abundance, aluminum metal was not isolated until 1825, by Danish chemist Hans Christian Oersted—the discoverer of the close relationship between electricity and magnetic fields. It was an electric current that allowed Oersted to produce impure metallic aluminum, but aluminum remained a rare and expensive curiosity for 60 years.

Charles Hall, a student at Oberlin College (Ohio) devised the first relatively cheap electrolytic aluminum manufacturing process in 1886—and the Aluminum Company of America treasured as “crown jewels” the small metal buttons Hall made.

Aluminum is bound tightly, usually with silicon, in common minerals. Only a few minerals lend themselves to the electrical disruption needed to free aluminum metal from the crystal lattices. Three aluminum hydroxide minerals, gibbsite, boehmite, and diaspore, are in that category, and they are the primary components of the rock bauxite. Bauxite forms by intense chemical weathering of aluminous minerals like feldspar in granite—in fact, Mother Nature does most of the work of producing aluminum, rearranging aluminum atoms to make bauxite’s hydroxides. Metallurgists seeking pure aluminum can process bauxite cheaply, while the aluminum in more common compounds like feldspar and clay is impossible to remove commercially.

In the United States, the only significant bauxite formed 90 million years ago in what is now Arkansas. Those deposits served as important ore sources from 1899 until competition from cheaper foreign markets and recycling ended production in 1990. The U.S. has no primary bauxite production today.

No bauxite doesn’t mean we don’t produce a lot of aluminum. With 30% recycling, together with processed imports, the United States in 2008 was a net aluminum exporter—a dramatic change from 2005 when metallic aluminum was imported (more than 40% of domestic consumption) along with 100% imported bauxite. U.S. aluminum smelters employ 55,000 workers in an industry whose metal production earns $7.9 billion each year.

As Jules Verne wrote, “Aluminum was once a precious metal.” Precious enough to cap the pyramid atop the Washington Monument in 1884, when aluminum’s price was $1 per ounce, the same as silver—at a time when a dollar bought nearly 500 pounds of coal, 150 bricks, or 15 pounds of flour.

Adapted and expanded from What Things Are Made Of, Chapter 4: You Are What You Eat. Bauxite image above from USGS via Wikipedia.

Friday, January 1, 2010

American dependency on natural resources

Many people I talk to have the mistaken impression that the United States is not only self-sufficient in most resources (with the generally known exception of oil), but that we are also the world’s 600-pound gorilla when it comes to most of the important natural resources we use. Not so.

In the list below, I’m focusing only on some of the main mineral resources, things that are familiar to most people. For each commodity, I’m providing the world production leader (in some cases, a very close #2 is also given) with the percentage of world mine or factory production that nation contributes, using 2008 figures from the US Geological Survey. U.S. percentage and world rank is given for comparison. For most of these resources, the U.S. consumes far more than it produces.

Aluminum (smelter): China (33%). US= 7%, #4
Cement (plant): China (50%). US= 3%, #3
Copper: Chile (35%). US= 8%, #2
Gold: China (13%). US= 10%, #3
Iron Ore: China (35%). US= 2%, #7
Raw Steel (foundry): China (38%). US= 7%, #5
Lead: China (40%). US= 12%, #3
Manganese: South Africa (21%), China (20%). US= none
Molybdenum: USA (29%, #1), China (28%)
Nickel: Russia (17%). US= none
Silver: Peru (17%). US= 5%, #7
Sulfur: USA (13%, #1)
Tin: China (45%). US= none
Tungsten: China (75%). US= est. 1%, est. #14
Zinc: China (28%). US= 7%, #4

My point is simple: Isolationist attitudes about natural resources are untenable. Modern society, especially in the United States, relies on a thoroughly globalized interdependency—whether we like it or not.