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.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Could another Guano War develop?

A significant portion of Chapter 7 in What Things Are Made Of is devoted to phosphorus and phosphate rock, the building blocks of fertilizer and critical for life. The term “peak phosphorus” is only about four years old, but together with rare earths and lithium, global phosphorus supply is gaining mainstream attention.

While some research suggests phosphorus supplies could decline to problem levels by 2035, a recent analysis takes a different view. Either way, irregular distribution—one of the themes of my book—will probably impact phosphorus trade and use.

Phosphate rock ooids from Montana. Photo by Richard Gibson
In 2010, the U.S. imported 15% of its phosphate rock, the highest import dependency in history. The United States was a net exporter most years until about 1997, and imports were generally small until 2010, in part a reaction to the apparent ending of the global recession. All U.S. phosphate rock imports came from Morocco—the little country that owns or controls about three-quarters of the world’s reserves. Morocco and the U.S. produce about equal amounts, at 26 million tons per year (about 15% of world production each). China leads the world in phosphate rock mining with 37% of the total.

The mineral apatite, calcium phosphate, forms phosphate rock. Exactly how these deposits arise is still somewhat questionable, but upwelling ocean currents are thought to allow the chemical precipitation to occur. Other economic phosphate deposits are bird guano; islets off Peru covered with such material contributed to the “Guano War” in the 1860s. Whether demand for phosphate will lead to anything beyond trade wars remains to be seen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dumpster Day

Saturday was Dumpster Day in Butte, Montana. It’s a day for recycling, sponsored by United Way, that comes every three months. And every three months the volume of stuff I generate appalls me. I alone threw away (well, saved for this day) four huge dog-food bags full of plastic, crushed to the extent possible, which is not much. Plastic dominates the piles I’ve been saving up, because paper, glass, steel, and aluminum are easier to take to the local recycling bins, which don’t accept plastic. All this plastic isn’t much by weight, but it sure is by volume.

Plastic is the hallmark of the Convenience Society. Easy to make, cheap, recyclable. It shows up in at least a dozen major sections of What Things Are Made Of. I get messages from people wanting to eliminate plastic as a way of saving oil. A nice idea, but not really valid. Plastic’s impact on the environment is a problem, but if we eliminated every bit of the plastic production in the US, it would be only a drop in the barrel of oil consumption.

One 42-gallon barrel of crude oil makes about 44 gallons of product, because during refining volumes increase. Of that final 44 gallons, 1.2 gallons make “feedstocks,” the chemical precursors to plastics, synthetic rubber, paints, petrochemicals, and more. That’s just under 3% of the products made from crude oil. Purists will add the energy cost to manufacture and distribute plastic products, which might get the total of oil consumption related to plastics up to 7%.

The point is that it’s just not that much volume. To conserve oil, forget plastic. A lot of it (such as grocery bags) is made from natural gas anyway, not oil. To conserve oil, drive less.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bolivia: Lithium capital?

I hope my April Fool’s Day post didn’t bother anyone! Today I thought I’d focus on one country: Bolivia. Bolivia has been in the news as the world’s largest supply of lithium, and increasing demand for lithium batteries in electric vehicles might mean the US will have to cozy up with a government that has not been exactly pro-US lately.

But wait. Bolivia doesn’t produce any lithium; the world production leaders are Chile and Australia, each with about a third of the world’s lithium, and China in third place with about 18%. Chile has half the world’s reserves and China has another quarter. Bolivia isn’t even on the list of producers or those with reserves. What’s up?

It’s the difference between resources and reserves. Reserves – what Chile and China have – are known, established deposits that can be mined economically with today’s technologies and at today’s prices. Resources are known, speculative, and possible deposits that might be producible sometime in the future. Huge lithium resources – a third of the world – are what Bolivia has (or may have).

Bolivia also has 6% of the world’s tin, 6% of the silver, 4% of the zinc, 2.5% of the lead, 2% of the antimony, 2% of tungsten, 1.5% of boron. Of all those, zinc is most valuable to Bolivians, contributing around $680 million a year to the national economy, more than silver ($610 million) and tin ($260 million). But Bolivia’s most valuable commodity is natural gas, accounting for most of the $880 million attributable to fuels.

The most important commodity imported by the US from Bolivia is tin. The US imports about 70% of its tin; the rest is not mined but is produced from recycled materials. Of 37,000 tons of tin imported by the US, 16% comes from Bolivia, placing it #2 as an import supplier after Peru, which supplies more than half the tin imported to the US.

Electrical applications use more than a quarter of our tin, well ahead of the #2 use in cans and containers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Unobtanium comes into its own

Unobtanium, a rare organo-metallic sulfide, now exists in adequate quantities to begin to see common, everyday uses. Its geologic occurrence, near volcanic flows in organic-rich subtropical environments, has limited its use to a few research labs. New devices are beginning to make use of its special properties.

Unobtanium replaces arsenic in integrated circuits, allowing arsenic to be used in more traditional ways. In the near term, this will likely double the cost of cell phones but predictions of increased demand will drive the price down within the next 35 years. Unobtanium goes pretty far: five ounces can make 765,453 cell phones.

Even pots and pans will benefit from unobtanium coatings, because of its remarkable heat transfer properties. In nature, this quality transmits volcanic heat into groundwater, creating hot springs. Processing unobtanium with irradiated fluorspar from China enhances the heat transfer and makes it stronger.

Only a few deposits are known that are rich enough for unobtanium to be mined as a primary product. Not surprisingly, most of these deposits are in China. The Wǒ zhèngzài zuò zhè jiàn shì deposit near the Mongolian border has yielded 67% of unobtanium produced to date. A low-grade deposit on the island of Jensaiqua in French Polynesia is being evaluated for its potential.

Soon most Americans will be importing yet another commodity upon which they will rely without even knowing about it. APRIL FOOL! :)