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, February 24, 2011


I was going to take a break from going through the commodities list alphabetically to say something about oil, since the price surge due to worries about Libya and the wider region has tripled the visitor count to my oil pages to more than 1,600 visitors a day (up from a consistent average of about 600), but what I would have said has already been more succinctly written. It boils down to "use less," but the complete, good report can be read here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What Things book: Another update

The book is done and has been accepted by my print-on-demand publisher of choice. It will end up about 316 pages (6x9 paperback format) and will probably cost $17.95 for the printed version, which should be available in a few weeks. Details on electronic versions to come, but it will definitely be available in the Apple iBookstore.

Thanks to all for your interest and support!

Saturday, February 12, 2011


It’s a metal, not an earth, and more abundant in the earth’s crust than silver, gold, or iodine, but the rare-earth element europium is hard to come by. Like most rare earths, it forms few minerals and usually only occurs as traces within complex rare-earth carbonates and phosphates—minerals that rarely occur in economic concentrations.

Europium, discovered in 1890 and named for Europe, has been used mostly as the red phosphor in television tubes. Appropriately, paper euros include europium-based pigments as an anti-counterfeiting device. US postage stamps have used fluorescent europium as well, and it helps make some lasers and medical screening machines.

Like all the rare earths, europium comes mostly from Bayan Obo, China, the deposit that yields most of the world’s rare earths today. China’s largest rare-earth producer, Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-tech Co., Ltd., had a 2008 capacity of 250,000 tons of rare earths. Only 120 tons was europium. Its price in 2008 was $1,200 per kilogram ($545 per pound), the third most expensive rare earth after lutetium and thulium.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Diamonds aren’t forever

Wait—maybe they are. Industrial uses rather than gems consume most diamonds, and it’s those industrial applications I’m addressing here. About 55 million carats of natural industrial diamonds were mined in 2010, with Russia in a small lead over Congo (Kinshasa) for production. Together Russia and Congo mined more than half the world’s industrial diamonds.

Diamond in matrix. USGS photo.
In contrast, about 74 million carats of gem diamonds came to light in 2010, with Botswana in the lead and Russia at #2. But wait again—that’s more than the volume of industrial diamonds mentioned in the first paragraph. Right. Those were natural industrial diamonds, which account for only a little more than one percent of all diamonds. Synthetic diamonds dominate the industrial scene, and China produces more than 4 billion carats each year, far and away the world leader.

And guess what? China is the leading supplier of such diamonds to the US, and the US, as expected, is among the world’s greatest consumers of industrial diamonds. The US produces only about 127 million carats of industrial diamond, which sounds like a lot, but not in comparison to that 4-billion-carat gorilla, China. The US imports more than 500 million carats, 63% from China. The few natural industrial diamonds imported come from Africa, largely Botswana, but 93% of US industrial diamonds are synthetic.

Where do they go? Tiny dies for creating thin, light-bulb-filament wires, drill bits that find oil and gas, and computer chips all use industrial diamonds. But the vast majority go to a mundane use: stone and concrete cutting, mostly in the road-building and repair industry.

So as you motor down the highway, think about those Chinese synthetic diamonds. They helped find the oil to make the gasoline in your tank, and they help make the road beds upon which you drive.

Photo: Diamond in matrix. From USGS.