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.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buy American!

I love to read letters to the editor whose writers seem to believe that all our problems (or at least those of the auto industry) could be solved by Americans buying American cars.

I’m not going to get into the question of what’s an “American Car Company” – are Toyotas made in Tennessee American or Japanese? Does Daimler’s former ownership of Chrysler mean that they made foreign cars? Who owns Saab? I have no idea. I want to share some information about the sources of raw materials that make up the “American” car.

Iron to make steel – far and away the greatest proportion, by weight, of every U.S.-made car – comes from mines in Minnesota and Michigan. 240 pounds of aluminum comes from either recycling or imported ores and concentrates, because the U.S. has no domestic production of bauxite, the only ore of aluminum. Smaller in volume, other elements are nonetheless critical components of modern vehicles.

  • Copper – on average, a third imported from Chile, Canada, Peru.
  • Lead – probably mined in Missouri or Alaska
  • Zinc – mined in the U.S., refined overseas
  • Manganese – 100% imported from Gabon, South Africa, China
  • Chromium – mostly imported from South Africa, Kazakhstan
  • Nickel – mostly imported from Canada, Russia, Norway
  • Magnesium compounds and metal – from Canada, China, Russia
  • Sulfur – produced in 29 states and imported from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela
  • Silicon – half imported, 60% of that from China and Russia
  • Molybdenum – from U.S. mines in the Rocky Mountain States and Nevada
  • Vanadium – 100% imported from Czech Republic, South Africa, China
  • Platinum – 91% imported (South Africa, Germany)
  • Palladium – 72% (Russia, South Africa)
  • Antimony – 86% dependent (China)
  • Barium – 79% import reliance, almost all from China
  • Beryllium – from Utah
  • Cobalt – recycling (20%) and imports (80% - Norway, Russia, China)
  • Gallium – 99% dependent, from China, Ukraine, Germany
  • Gold – U.S. is a net exporter. Nevada is the leading producing state.
  • Neodymium – 100% dependent. China produces almost all in the world.
  • Tin - recycling (20%) and imports (80% - Peru, Bolivia, China)
  • Lithium – more than 50% imports, from Chile and Argentina
  • Vinyl plastic – made from natural gas (19% imported, mostly from Canada) and salt (17% imported, largely from Canada and Chile)

There’s more, but that’ll do for this post. Are you saying, “I really don’t care whether my car has neodymium and lithium or not.”? You should. As gasoline prices increase, those and other elements will become dramatically more important in electric batteries and in improving fuel efficiency. Do you like your car’s glossy paint? Barium from China contributes to that sheen. Platinum and palladium make your catalytic converter work.

What Things Are Made Of covers the geology behind China’s near-monopoly in rare-earth production (including neodymium) and Bolivia’s status as the future “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Buick photo in public domain, via Wikipedia

1 comment:

Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God said...

Hello, Richard;

I read on Rachelle G's blog that you write nonfiction. You might want to join us at http://aspiringwritersofnonfiction.blogspot.com/.

Be blessed,