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, January 31, 2012

Mineral production up in 2011

To the extent that mineral production reflects the economy, it looks like things were improving in 2011. The US Geological Survey released its 2012 Mineral Commodities Summaries, covering 2011, and most metals show significant increase in value.

Gold and copper are usually the leading metals by value produced in the US. In 2008, thanks to low gold prices, the copper industry yielded ore worth half again the value of gold: $9.4 billion vs. $6.7 billion for gold. Copper depends sensitively on the building industry, and with the recession in 2009, its value fell to $6.2 billion while gold held relatively steady at $6.4 billion.

In 2010, the copper business was worth $8.4 billion and gold was at $8.9 billion, but with continuing increases in gold’s price, in 2011 gold was valued at $12.2 billion, surpassing copper’s record value of $10 billion.

Other 2011 commodity business values include iron ore at $6 billion (triple the 2009-2010 amount) and the titanium dioxide industry, at $3.8 billion, surpassing its 2008 rate of $3.7 billion for the first time.

The most valuable non-fuel mineral commodity produced in the U.S. has been crushed stone, holding steady in 2009-2011 at $11 billion, more valuable than gold, copper, or any other metal, but gold took the lead in 2011 for the first time in recent years.

Despite the surge in value for gold produced in the U.S., the nation went from a net exporter of gold to a net importer in 2010-2011, with about 38% of consumption imported. Much of this was raw ore for processing. Copper imports have been fairly steady for the past 5 years at about one-third of total consumption (35% of our copper was imported in 2011).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tin surging

Cassiterides, north of Iberia--presumed source of early tin.
There’s quite a lot about tin in my book—it’s found on at least 10 pages, and in things as diverse as toothpaste and type metal. There have been some recent changes in some of the salient facts about tin.

Whether or not there’s a recession, according to information cited in this Bloomberg article, we’re about to see nearly 2 billion new cell phones a year. Combine that with more flat-screen TVs and computers, digital cameras, and other electronics, and consumption of tin (mostly for solder) is surging. In my book I quote recent USGS reports that 28% of all the tin used goes to electronics. The Bloomberg article indicates that that value is now more than 50%.

No more than a gram of tin per cell phone, but multiply it by two billion and it all adds up. Production increases (estimated at 0.6% for 2012) are not keeping up with demand increases, and the price of tin could climb in 2012 from around $9-$10 per pound in 2010 to as much as $13 per pound. And consumption is projected to exceed supply by more than 10,000 tons in 2012.

Where does the US get its tin? Apart from recycling and processing scrap, the US imports all its tin. There has been no primary mine production of tin in the US since 1993. Principal suppliers are Peru (more than half our imported tin), Bolivia, China, and Indonesia. China produces almost half the world’s tin, and Indonesia is #2 with almost one-fourth. In addition to electronics, there's tin in your car, in cans and containers (including glass and plastic ones--organotins reduce scratching in plastic), and in toothpaste (stannous fluoride -- stannum is Latin for tin, whose chemical symbol is Sn).

The map here shows an early map of Europe with the Cassiterides, imaginary islands that the Greeks thought to be the source of Phoenician tin. In reality, the tin came from Cornwall, in southwestern Britain. Cassiterite, tin oxide, is the primary ore of tin.

Public domain image from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Soliciting input

Obviously I haven't posted here in a while; I've been focused on a new book project unrelated to the topics of What Things Are Made Of. It's a book in The History Press' "Lost" series about buildings gone from Butte, Montana: information and blog here.

For What Things Are Made Of (this blog) I'm asking for input from readers: What would you like to see here? Either reply in the comments here, or send me an email at rigibson@earthlink.net with questions or ideas that you'd like to see addressed. Anything within the realm of resources - minerals, coal, oil, etc. - is fair game: geology, distribution, imports, uses, etc.

Thanks for your help and support.