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, April 29, 2010

Let’s play gossip

You remember the game—you whisper something to your neighbor, who whispers to the next person and so on around the room, until something incredibly different gets back to you. I see the Internet as one big game of gossip.

You’d think people could search around until they figured out the “truth,” whatever that may be. But it seems that many just latch onto the story of the moment, take a few highlights, add some embellishment, and pass it on.

A simple example comes from the questions I get through the Oil Statistics pages of my web site. It’s astonishing how many people ask whether or not it’s true that all of Alaska’s oil is exported to the Far East. And more astonishing how many, after I point out the answer with reliable sources, tell me I have to be lying and that I’m part of the conspiracy.

In 1996, when oil cost $12 a barrel and there was a glut of the stuff on the West Coast—refineries couldn’t handle it all—a law was passed allowing Alaskan oil to be exported. At a maximum of 7% of production. For four years, some oil was shipped to Japan, South Korea, and China. Only rarely was as much as 7% exported—the most was about 80,000 barrels per day when the US was consuming 19,000,000 barrels per day and Alaska was producing around 1,300,000 barrels per day.

In 2000, with prices up and the glut in West Coast refineries relieved, the State of Alaska and oil companies voluntarily ceased the exports, and since then every drop of Alaskan crude has gone to US refineries. But you’d be amazed how many people flat-out will not believe that.

More information and links are available on my Alaska Oil page.

Alaska Pipeline photo from US Geological Survey.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My t-shirt

My t-shirt reads “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” And while that’s a mantra of the mining industry, it’s also completely true.

This particular shirt is 100% cotton, and “Hecho en Mexico.”  For a future post, I’ll write about 50-50 blends of cotton and polyester, but for now I want to address the mineral underpinnings of this cotton, something that is grown.

Even things that are grown require minerals. Think soil and fertilizer and pesticides. Yes, I know there is a small and growing movement toward “organic agriculture,” including cotton farming, but it is tiny compared to the industrial scale of most textile crops. World-wide, 25% of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers contribute to cotton’s growth.

China is the world’s largest cotton grower, but the U.S. is the #1 cotton exporter. China is our #1 customer, with Turkey and Mexico next in line. Mexico relies on the US as its greatest supplier of cotton. So although my shirt is hecho (assembled, sewed) in Mexico, at least some of the cotton probably came from fields in Texas or California. Just as you can’t boycott Arab oil by boycotting any (and I really mean almost any) U.S. gas station, you can’t “buy American” simply by avoiding a product “made” elsewhere. Cotton farmers, potash miners, natural gas producers in the U.S. have all contributed to my “Made in Mexico” t-shirt.

Ninety percent of the cost of nitrogen fertilizer is in the cost of the natural gas that becomes ammonia and ultimately the nitrogen component. Some comes from coal, but natural gas, mostly from the U.S., is the feedstock for most of it. Potash, another mineral vital in fertilizers (the source for potassium) is mined in New Mexico and extracted from brines in Utah and Michigan, adding up to a 686-million-dollar business employing more than 1,000 workers. But the U.S. fertilizer industry is so big we also import 73% of more than three million tons of potash each year. Most of it comes from Canada, but Belarus supplies about 5% of our potash imports.

Pesticides have a well-deserved negative reputation. They are, after all, killers, and they have negatively impacted humans and beneficial animals and plants as well as pests. Whole books and advertising campaigns champion and condemn their value and their evil. For now, suffice it to say that they are ultimately made from chemicals derived from minerals, from oil and natural gas to arsenic and chlorine. And love them or hate them, they are used in agriculture on a huge scale world-wide.

Farming of course requires other mineral-based equipment and supplies, from tractors and their fuel to water-supply systems. My primary point in this post is to highlight the extreme interdependency on a global scale of the things we take for granted. And to point out that a label like “Made in Mexico” or “Made in USA” isn’t a black-or-white statement.

My t-shirt’s imprint boasts at least six colorful dyes. I’ve posted previously about the deep blue color ultramarine, and again the topic of mineral pigments fills more than one book. That’s enough for now.

Photo by Lady von Gaga-Gaza.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Does the US import everything? Not quite!

It seems I’m always focused on the United States’ dependency on foreign imports for most everything, and to tell the truth, increasing that awareness is an important motivation for What Things Are Made Of. But what about the other way around? What raw mineral commodities does the U.S. export?

Not too many, but U.S. mineral exports are important and valuable.

For example, the U.S. is a net exporter of gold. In 2008, the U.S. was the world’s #2 gold producer, behind China, but in 2009 China expanded its lead and the U.S. was tied in third place, lagging Australia (barely) and on a par with South Africa. World production shares for gold are given below for 2009:

  • China – 13%
  • Australia – 9%
  • South Africa – 8.9%
  • USA – 8.9%
  • Russia – 7.9%
  • Peru – 7.7%

The gold mining and milling industry employs nearly 10,000 workers in the U.S., mostly in Alaska and Nevada, yielding mine product worth about $6.4 billion.

What about oil? Yes, the world’s largest consumer (18,520,000 barrels a day in January 2010) does export crude oil. 33,000 barrels (under two-tenths of one percent of consumption) every day in January. I hear the outrage: we need every drop, prices are too high already, companies are screwing us. But consider: all that exported crude goes to Canadian refineries, typically those nearer the producing fields than US refineries. And virtually every drop comes back to the U.S. as imported gasoline. It would in all likelihood cost more to ship the oil from a remote North Dakota field to a refinery in Texas than across the border to Canada. And to repeat something that needs repeating, not one drop of Alaska crude goes to the Far East or any nation other than the U.S. At most, from 1996-2000, 7% of Alaska’s crude was exported.

Nearly half the U.S. output of soda ash is exported, half of a $1.4-billion-a-year industry centered on southwest Wyoming. A vital component of glass manufacture, soda ash also finds its way to soaps and many chemicals, but its role in glass makes the business sensitive to housing and automobile manufacture; consequently production dipped a bit in 2009. But the U.S. remains the 600-pound gorilla of soda ash, with 93% of the planet’s natural product yield and 96% of estimated world reserves, all thanks to an unusual deposit of the mineral trona, laid down in a huge Wyoming lake about 45,000,000 years ago.

Other commodities that the U.S. exports include molybdenum, boron, helium, diatomite, and zirconium.

Gold crystals photo from Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Prices of mineral commodities, like those of most things, vary over time according to supply and demand and natural and geopolitcal events that artificially inflate or deflate prices. Tariffs and government regulations can impact prices too, as can market speculators.

Copper’s price has been driven in recent decades mostly by the rate of building construction in the biggest consumers – the US for all of the 20th Century, and China since 2002. Half the copper used in the US goes to building construction. During the 1990s, copper’s average price for the year ranged from a high of $1.38/lb in 1995 to a low of 76¢ a pound in 1999. It remained below $1.00 per pound until 2004; in 2006, the price nearly doubled to an average of $3.15/lb and has remained above $3.00/lb on average every year since then (except 2009, at $2.37). Copper was near or above $4.00/lb briefly in 2006 and again in 2008. A general upward trend in 2010, to more than $3.50 now, may signify an improving economy – or at least a perception of one in the markets.

Neodymium, critical in many applications but in rather low quantities, was around $6/kilogram (2.2 kg/lb) in 2003 but as demand increased (for magnets in electric motors for cars and windmills, among other things), the price reached $60/kg in 2007 and has been in the $40-$46 range since then.

Indium, an important component of thin films in liquid crystal displays and flat-panel TVs and computer screens, ranged in average annual price from $120 to $375 per kilogram from 1991 to 2001, and reached a low in 2002 at $60/kilo. As technology improved and we began to buy more and more flat-panel products, indium’s price climbed dramatically in the 2000s — $176/kg in 2003, $643 (2004), $961 (2005), $815 (2006), $637 (2007), $519 (2008) and $390 in 2009 as economic problems reduced its consumption. In April 2010, indium was at about $625/kg. Indium is three times more abundant in the earth’s crust than silver, but it forms few minerals and almost never in economic concentrations. The 600 tons per year produced on earth come mostly as byproducts of zinc mining; half the world production comes from China.

Even a common commodity like rock salt shows price fluctuations. From 1991 to 2003, its price hovered between $19/ton and $23/ton. Since 2004 the price has climbed steadily, to $35/ton in 2009. In the same time frame, US imports of salt nearly doubled, from 11% in 1991 to 20% in 2008-09. The biggest consumer of salt is the highway deicing business (43% of consumption), with the chemical industry in second place (35%).

When you compare prices, be aware that different materials may be priced differently. It could be pure metal, or a metal oxide, or a metal concentrate that’s priced, but all under the heading of cobalt (or whatever).

Image from Wikivisual under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Coal: chemical gold

Coal has been in the news lately, with a deadly explosion in a West Virginia coal mine and a near-disaster at another mine in China. Leaving aside the dangers, both human and environmental, what is coal used for?

Most people will be aware that about half the electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning coal (world-wide, the figure is about 40%). Burning coal has been used historically to create steam for locomotives, ships, and machinery, and as a direct fuel for heating homes and businesses. I’ll focus on more obscure, non-fuel uses.

One use that is not really obscure, but involves burning coal, is steel manufacture. Coke, coal that has been baked to drive off volatiles, is the main fuel for steel blast furnaces.

Diverse chemicals derive directly or indirectly from coal. Coal tars are residual by-products of coal gasification. Coal gas was used for city street lighting in the decades before electric lights became common. Coal tar chemicals led to the development of some insecticides, paint thinners, and moth balls, as well as mauve and other synthetic dyes (see Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, by Simon Garfield, a good read) including the color in the 1882 stamp seen here.

Coal tar chemicals yield both aspirin and the plastic bottle containing the medication. Fertilizer, smelling salts, and baking powder have a chemical heritage in the ammonia derived from the coking process. Soap, nylon, and synthetic rubber in car tires have coal-derived components.

Activated charcoal filters, from air cleaners to kidney dialysis machines, are made from coal. TNT explosives and perfumes have coal in their pasts.

The United States owns the greatest coal reserves in the world, at 27% of the total (Russia is #2 at 17%), but China is the world production leader with almost 40% (U.S. is #2 at 17%).  China’s industrialization means it exports less and less coal, using most of it internally as the world’s largest coal consumer, with the consequence that Australia is the leading coal exporter, at about a third of the world total (and Indonesia is the #2 exporter, with 13%).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Pandemonium rules

If you’re like many Americans, you probably think your home and life represent marginally controlled pandemonium, sometimes verging on delirium. But if you operate a safe home, you may well have some useful pandemonium and not even know it.

Pandemonium and delirium were the working names for radioactive Elements 95 and 96, synthesized in 1944 by Glenn Seaborg, Albert Ghiorso, and Ralph A. James during the Manhattan Project to unleash the power of the atom. Radioactive plutonium decays by emitting beta particles to form Element 95 – now called americium – and Element 96, curium. 

Americium, named for the Americas, occupies a tiny wafer in ionization-type smoke detectors.  A fraction of a gram of radioactive americium metal, rolled with gold to form a thin foil, is sandwiched in a silver-palladium pellet.  Alpha particles emitted by the americium are big and can’t travel very far. They ionize the air in a small chamber, and the ions set up a small current between two plates connected to a battery or electrical source.  When smoke enters the chamber, the ions are attracted to smoke particles rather than the electrical terminals, so the current measured is less than normal.  Once the current falls beneath a pre-set threshold, the smoke alarm goes off, and pandemonium follows.

Most americium production comes from nuclear facilities, where it is a by-product of plutonium reactions. One such facility, Los Alamos National Lab, recently put out a call for commercial partners to work with them in marketing and distributing the element.

Radioactivity in your smoke detector is not dangerous. As noted above, the particles can’t travel beyond the chamber in which they form. It would not be a good idea to eat your smoke detector, however.

Smoke detectors have been suggested by the paranoid as targets for terrorists who would use the americium to make nuclear explosives. There’s only about 0.00000029 gram in each smoke detector, and it takes around 80 kilograms to attain critical mass to explode, so it would take a LOT of smoke detectors – likely, most of those in existence, or more – to make an explosive. Don’t lose any sleep over it.

The photo via Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license