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.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Transparent Aluminum

By Richard I. Gibson

Do you recall the walls that encased the humpback whales transported forward in time by the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek IV, thereby saving humanity? Scotty was challenged to come up with transparent aluminum to make that gigantic aquarium.

Welcome to the future.

Sapphire glass, second to diamond in hardness, and shatter- and scratch resistant, is in use in some smartphone camera lenses, some LED lights, high-end watch covers and some store barcode scanners. It’s in the screen of one pricey ($3,000) smartphone touchscreen made by Vertu. This material made the news lately when speculations arose that Apple’s iPhone 6 would carry a sapphire glass screen, but although Apple reportedly is building an Arizona alumina processing facility, recent news reports suggest the material may be to expensive for screens.

Sapphire glass is not glass, because glass is amorphous and this material is crystalline. It’s made by processing aluminum oxide (alumina) under high heat and pressure with a specific optical orientation, and the result is essentially high-purity corundum, Al2O3, which is called sapphire when blue (and clear and many other shades) and ruby when red. Corning® Glass makes Gorilla® Glass, the component in more than a billion smartphone screens, but they do not see sapphire glass as competition because of the high cost. They estimate that it takes 100 times the energy to make sapphire glass as their Gorilla Glass and at least ten times the total dollar cost.

Sapphire glass is not made from natural gem sapphires, but is created synthetically using high-purity alumina. The alumina has to come from somewhere, of course, and it is mined. Although aluminum is one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust, minerals and rocks that contain it in a form that allows its efficient extraction are unusual. Virtually all alumina is produced by processing the aluminous rock bauxite, and China leads the world in alumina production; China and Australia together make 58% of the world’s alumina. The United States is 100% dependent on imports of alumina, mostly from Australia, 34%; Suriname, 22%; Brazil, 17%; and Jamaica, 14%.

References: USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries; Minerals Yearbook; linked news reports. Smartphone photo public domain via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Four Hidden Gems of Self-Publishing

This guest post from Nikolas Baron (Grammarly.com) is on self-publishing.

By Nikolas Baron

The Bible’s book of Ezekiel, completed around 591 B.C.E, uses the imagery of jasper stone to describe the glory of God. However, I have no idea of what jasper stone looks like. A precious piece of jasper stone could be lying in my backyard, and I would never know! This article discusses five hidden gems of self-publishing that reduce or eliminate costs. There is no need for digging; I have already uncovered their secret location! Keep reading to learn how to identify these helpful resources.

Gold: Copy Editing

Grammarly, the company I work for, provides proofreading on their website within moments. In my years of working there, I see an abundance of easy-to-correct mistakes suggested by the grammar checker. Save yourself time and money by finding and fixing errors before contacting an editor. Then, submit a finalized copy to a professional editor for one final edit. Copy editors carefully sift through the words of novels. They seek errors. Like iron pyrite, or fool’s gold, errors look fine to an untrained eye. Experienced editors find awkward phrases, grammatical errors, and unclear explanations. Before submitting work to a professional editor, perform a preliminary search for mistakes.

No Geodes Allowed: Cover Design

Geodes look plain and ordinary on the outside. However, inside these rocks are sparkly and colorful.  You do not want your book to be like a geode! From the cover, catch the eye of the reader with engaging art and an intriguing title. Be prepared to invest a significant portion of the budget on this aspect of your novel. Check out this Directory of Self-Publishing Resources. The website lists cover artists with experience working with self-publishers. The counsel that they provide is invaluable.

Diamonds:  Promotion

According to the Diamond Price Calculator found on the Washington Diamond website, the value of an internally flawless one-carat diamond is almost $17,000. However, the cost of an imperfect diamond is only about $1,300. The difference in cost reflects the difference in quality between an internally flawless diamond and an imperfect one. To the inexperienced eye, both diamonds sparkle but experts easily discern which diamond has more value. Advertisements on social media websites, such as Facebook, are flawless diamonds in the sense that they reach thousands of potential readers. The hidden gems are blogs!  Maintain a writer’s blog and promote your own novel. Use the successful blogs of colleagues and acquaintances. Offer to trade services:  “I will post your announcement if you post mine!” One article, “Top 10 Free Online Blogging Platforms”, compares a number of websites that host blogs at no cost.

Pearls:  Printing Advance Copies

To find a pearl, you open the oyster and look inside. To find a great deal on the printing of advance copies, you shop around to find the best prices. Advance copies, sometimes referred to as galleys, sell in lots. While prices are usually cheaper for larger lots, do not waste money printing hundreds of books that may never sell. Instead, estimate a reasonable amount of galleys to prepare or find a shop that will print samples in short runs. One company, Country Press, prints as few as 11 copies per batch!  If you are the handy type, attempt to make your own advance reading copy.

These jewels are within your grasp. Copy editing is unavoidable, so use online proofing websites to identify simple grammar errors. Do not underestimate blogs, which are invaluable in spreading literary news. If you do not currently write a blog, start one today! Avoid book covers that obscure the beauty of your writing. Invest money in an attractive cover that represents the content of your book. Finally, open as many oysters as possible. Shop around to find the best printing deals. Print in small batches. By taking advantage of these tips, your novel will be a jewel.

by Nikolas Baron

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown childrens’ novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Image: The 182-carat Star of Bombay star sapphire, via Wikipedia.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Coal perspective

By Richard I. Gibson

My local paper today had a front-page article about record coal exports, at 125,000,000 tons for 2012. That’s a lot of tons, but it’s just 11% of the total amount of coal mined in the United States—1,094,000,000 tons in 2012, down a bit from the recent high of 1,172,000,000 tons in 2008. The US has produced more than a billion tons of coal every year since 1994. Exported coal first passed 100,000,000 tons per year in 1981, averaging around 80,000,000 tons a year since then.

The US is a distant second in coal production after China’s 3.9 billion tons a year, and well ahead of #3 Australia, which mines about 457,000,000 tons a year.

US coal consumption has decreased by about 25,000,000 tons a year since 2007 to just over 1 billion in 2011, largely because of increasing use of natural gas in electrical power generation. In the same period, China’s consumption increased from 2.8 billion to 3.8 billion tons per year, an increase equal to the total US annual consumption. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that China is where the coal demand is, as it is for a great many basic commodities.

So it will also be no surprise to learn that US exports of coal, that 11% of total production, are also increasing to China, close to doubling from 2011 to 2012, from 5.6 million tons to more than 10 million tons (which amounts to 1% of total US production). China is now the third largest single recipient of US coal exports (after the Netherlands and the U.K.), up from the 8th position in 2011.

But by continent, Europe receives more than six times as much US coal as China does, with 66 million tons in 2012. The leading importers in Europe are Netherlands (13.5 million tons) and the U.K. (12.1 million). North American exports, at 11.4 million tons in 2012, mostly to Canada and Mexico, still exceed those to China. A comparable volume of US coal goes to South America, mostly to Brazil and Chile. In Asia, other leading importers of US coal are South Korea (more than 10 million tons in 2011, but just over 9 million in 2012) and India and Japan, at 6.8 and 5.7 million tons imported from the US in 2012, respectively.

Image credit: US government photo (public domain) of a Wyoming coal mine, via Wikipedia.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Peanut Butter Jar--the inner seal

By Richard I. Gibson

This simple little thing should be familiar to most Americans. It’s an inner safety seal from a jar of peanut butter. Many packages have them nowadays, in our society that seeks to ensure absolute safety in all aspects of food. Such hermetic barriers do help prevent contamination, extend product life, and provide a tamper-evident seal.

What’s it made of?

You’d probably say aluminum foil, and you’d be right—partly. It’s a sheet of pulp paper to which is bonded three more layers adding up to about 3.5 mils (a mil is one one-thousandth of an inch) in thickness. Only about 1 mil is aluminum. Another half-mil is a polyester that gives the sheet rigidity and flexibility. The rest, 2 mils out of 3.5, is usually a resin like DuPont’s patented and trademarked Surlyn™.

Surlyn is an ethylene copolymer, more or less ethylene vinyl acetate. Such resins make for a clean and easy peel when removing the seal, and they are also added to plastic wrap to enhance clinginess. Ethylene vinyl acetate combines ethylene and vinyl acetate. No surprises there.

Ethylene is a gas, C2H4, produced from natural gas and crude oil in the petrochemical cracking process in a refinery. It’s the largest volume organic chemical produced in the world today. Vinyl acetate comes from the chemical reaction between ethylene and acetic acid, a reaction enhanced by the presence of palladium as a catalyst. Acetic acid, essentially vinegar, was produced historically by distillation of various wood products, but today its chemosynthesis is by combining methanol (wood alcohol, CH3OH) with carbon monoxide. That’s another reaction that demands catalysts, this time including some pretty unusual metals, such as ruthenium, osmium, and iridium.

All this stuff obviously comes from somewhere. The next time you tear the seal off a new jar of peanut butter, think of it this way: you’re discarding a bit of paper, probably from pulp mills in the U.S., and some aluminum, ultimately from ores imported into the U.S. from Jamaica, Guinea, and Brazil. Processing aluminum ore (bauxite) to yield the pure metal demands a long list of chemicals, as well as a lot of electricity—which in the US is generated primarily by burning coal and natural gas.

The hydrocarbons that became the polyester and ethylene and methanol came from a long list of nations before reaching a U.S. refinery or petrochemical plant—if the stuff had “country of origin” labels, you’d have to include 86 nations that supply the U.S. with raw hydrocarbons.

Those metal catalysts are not trivial, but make the chemical reactions possible and economically feasible. While the U.S. does produce some palladium (from the Stillwater mine in Montana), more than half the palladium the U.S. consumes is imported, mostly from Russia and South Africa. Most of the iridium and ruthenium produced worldwide is mined in South Africa.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gallium revisited

By Richard I. Gibson

In this post on gallium in March 2011, I said there was no limitation in sight to the increasing price of gallium. But I was wrong.

After five years of prices ranging from averages of $688 per kilogram (2011) to $449 (2009), gallium’s price plummeted to about $275/kg in October 2012. Why? The simple rules of supply and demand.

China ramped up its gallium production anticipating a rapid increase in use of gallium-based LED’s (light-emitting diodes) in back-lighting for computer and other electronic device displays, but the growth of that industry was much less than projected. Supply outran demand, and the price fell. China increased world gallium capacity dramatically, by about 35% in two years, while demand simply grew at a normal pace.

In the long run, gallium has a bright future, because of its critical use in smartphones, where ten times the volume of gallium arsenide is used over conventional cell phones. The likely slow but steady growth in CIGS (copper-indium-gallium diselenide) solar cells will also contribute to increases in gallium demand.

The $32-million US gallium industry relies almost entirely on imports from refineries in Germany (32% of imports), U.K. (27%), China (15%) and Canada (11%), a slight reorganization of sources from my 2011 post. Integrated circuits consume 71% of gallium in the U.S., with the other 29% going to solar cells, photodetectors, and telecommunications devices like smartphones.

Gallium in January 2013 was priced at about $280/kg.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Values - it's all relative

Can you rank the value of the following US industries? (not the value itself, just the rank, highest value to lowest)?

Silver production
Crushed Stone
Airline Baggage Fees
Titanium Dioxide
Aluminum metal production
ANSWERS: (2011-12 values)
1. Crushed Stone - $11 billion
2. Copper – $9 billion
3. Aluminum metal production - $4.2 billion
4. Titanium Dioxide - $3.9 billion
5. Airline Baggage Fees - $3.7 billion
6. Silver production - $1.01 billion
7. Lead - $843 million