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.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Cooking, cleaning, cooling

Fluorine is another relatively obscure element, but one virtually every American has in his or her home.

Fluorine gas derives mostly from the mineral fluorite—a beautiful mineral, prized by collectors for its multicolored cubic crystals. The Cave-in-Rock District, along the Ohio River in southern Illinois, once produced most of the world’s fluorite (also known as fluorspar). Those mines are closed now, and the U.S. is dependent on imports for 100% of the fluorspar that we consume, amounting to more than 400,000 tons each year.

Where does it go? Most fluorine goes to make hydrofluoric acid, critical in aluminum and uranium processing. And hydrofluoric acid is the feedstock for all fluorine-bearing chemicals, and this is where fluorine ends up in homes.

Teflon in non-stick cookware and Freon in air-conditioning systems are brand names for fluorinated compounds. Then there’s fluoride in toothpaste and municipal water systems, not as a communist plot but to alleviate tooth decay because fluorine in the crystal structure of calcium phosphate (the mineral making bones and teeth) is stronger than otherwise.

Enamel coating your stove almost certainly contains fluorine. Glass and steel manufacture demand it, as does cement production.

Where does the U.S. get fluorspar? Most imports (52% in recent years) come from world production leader China. Another 34% is imported from Mexico, with South Africa a distant third as a U.S. fluorspar supplier.

Photo of fluorite from Cave-in-Rock by Richard Gibson

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