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, 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.

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