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 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