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.

Obviously this blog hasn't been updated in years. If you are interested in follow-up posts on this (and other) topics, please visit my Substack page.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Mineral Monday: Stibnite

by Richard Gibson

Stibnite, antimony sulfide, is the main source of the element antimony. The United States has no primary mine production of antimony, although some is recovered in smelters and through recycling of antimony-bearing lead products, but even with that the U.S. is dependent on imports for 84% of its antimony.

So what? Antimony is used by every American every day. The main use world wide is in flame retardants for things as diverse as children’s toys to automobile seat covers. Antimony compounds essentially suck the oxygen out of a fire, helping inhibit its spread.

Lead is alloyed with antimony to make it a little stronger, more corrosion resistant, and to reduce shrinkage when it solidifies. Lead-acid batteries in cars typically use antimonial lead, and ammunition (bullets) and solder are also lead-antimony alloys. These metal mixtures are the second-largest use of antimony.

Volumetrically smaller but still important uses include antimony as a clarifier for TV screens, as a semiconductor compound in electronics, and as pigment in some paints and enamels.

China is by far the world’s leading producer of antimony, with about 90% of the total, and much of it comes from the Xikuanshan Mine in Hunan Province, the source of the specimen in the photo here. Three-quarters of U.S. antimony imports come from China. U.S. consumption amounts to about 22,000 tons every year, valued at more than $200 million.

See also this article. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Tennis courts

Nice report on what things are made of that I DIDN'T cover in the book. See this link.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Pencil

This post is my first venture into video podcasting... it's based on the book, and it's a discussion about graphite and the pencil.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Globalization vs. Localism

by Richard I. Gibson

An article I read today about the possible demise of globalization got me thinking.

The primary purpose of my book What Things Are Made Of was to point out the nature of the globalized resource market, and the largely unrealized deep dependency that the United States has on raw materials from all over the world. Isolationism and American self-righteousness and pride simply won’t work in the face of the fact that we import substantial quantities of the vast majority of materials that make the American lifestyle. That’s a fact of life in America today, no matter how much Americans might like to feel that they are independent of other nations.

In the “Trends” section of my book, I consciously refrain from making any really sweeping predictions, because I know full well that fads, new inventions and new technology, and other factors can seriously affect supply and demand for mineral resources. (See this post pointing our the error of my ways.)

The article cited above suggests 3-D printing as a new technology that might enhance a possible trend away from globalization: print a new faucet at home rather than buying one made in China, thereby reducing international trade. If that faucet can be made from U.S.-mined resources, all well and good, and new-tech might indeed allow for a viable faucet made of plastic (which might be made from U.S.-produced natural gas), or even some renewable cellulose-based material. But to make anything like a present-day water faucet, you still need mineral resources that the U.S. simply does not have.

The U.S. is a net exporter of iron, the basic commodity in steel faucets, but it’s the additives that make it what we expect – strong, rust-resistant, long-lasting – and that require outside sources. Manganese (which makes steel wear-resistant) in ferroalloys is not mined in the United States. Most of the $1.4-billion worth of manganese that we use annually comes from Gabon and Australia. And there is no known reasonable substitute for manganese in steel alloys.

The nice chrome plating on your faucet comes from another resource that the U.S. does not mine, but thanks to recycling we are only 70% dependent on imports for chromium, mostly from South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

Those are just two examples. So, while neither applauding nor condemning the concept of globalization, in my opinion, because of the irregular distribution of mineral commodities – commodities that Americans depend on every day, whether they realize it or not – globalization is with us for the foreseeable future, at least for a great many resources.

Globe image public domain, from NASA.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The price of lead

by Richard I. Gibson

from Wikipedia Commons (public domain)
It will come as no surprise: the basic driver of the price of lead is automobile sales in China. Lead's price had been stable for quite a few years at about 20 cents a pound; but in 2004 it doubled to 40¢ then to 60¢ in 2005. World economy made it volatile in '08-'09 but it peaked at about $1.50 in 2007-2008. It has remained volatile since but floating around $1.00 per pound, still driven mostly by the lead-acid battery business and by China's 25%-a-year increase in auto sales (at least from 2006-10 with a small dip for the global recession in 2009).

In the US in 2011 86% of lead went to lead-acid batteries. China produces about half the world's lead but is still a net importer. U.S. production amounts to less than 8% of world total, but the US is a net exporter. Mine production totaled about 345,000 metric tons of lead in 2011, worth about $918,000,000. The vast majority of U.S. lead production comes from Missouri and the Red Dog Mine in Alaska. Consumption of lead in the United States runs to about 1,500,000 metric tons a year, five times the mine production; the apparent shortfall is made up from recycling which accounts for 83% of U.S. lead consumption.

As a consequence of the high price of lead, a friend of mine can make a good profit by making 4-ounce lead sinkers for high-end fishing expeditions.
Historical Lead Prices - Lead Price History Chart
from InfoMine.com

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Oil shale is not shale oil

by Richard I. Gibson

Jargon confuses, and confusing jargon confuses more of us. Oil shale is a rock, a solid rock, that contains some solid organic material called bitumen. It is not liquid. One does not simply drill a well into oil shale and produce oil. It’s more like a mining proposition, like the tar sands in Alberta, only more so—although there are ways of heating it up below the ground, converting that solid bitumen into something that can come up a drill pipe.

There are some oil shales that are oil source rocks, and then there are some other shales that may be even better source rocks, while most people would not call them oil shales. Source rock has enough organic material in it, and has had the proper geologic history, that nature has done the converting, maturing the organic material into actual liquid oil which may (if you are lucky) then migrate into some kind of trap, where explorers may find and produce it.

Some of the best oil shale in the U.S. is in the Piceance Creek Basin of northwestern Colorado. Much of the oil shale there formed in a large, long-lived lake that occupied the area especially during Eocene time, about 50 million years ago. Some estimates suggest more than a trillion barrels of oil in the solid bitumen of these rocks. The problem is you can’t turn it into liquid oil without a lot of heat—a lot of energy, and a lot of dollars. Oil shale in the U.S. is not an economic proposition at current prices. I’ve seen some things that say sustained prices around $85-$100 per barrel could make oil shale economic, but the other stumbling block is huge up-front costs to build the processing plants. Don’t hold your breath for oil shale as some panacea any time soon.

Gravity map, Railroad Valley Nevada
Shale as source rock is another matter. Here, nature does the work. A good example is the marine Chainman Shale of Nevada, laid down during Mississippian time around 330,000,000 years ago. There are places where this rock is up to 8% total organic carbon—really remarkable, given that good source rocks may be 1% or 2%, and some of the best source rocks in Saudi Arabia are typically 5% total organic carbon. The Chainman Shale is not generally a target for exploration, but as a source rock it is critical to the complex oil systems in Nevada. Nevada? Yep. One two-well field, Grant Canyon, produced around 6,000 barrels a day for quite a few years in the 1980s, the best onshore wells in the conterminous United States. That’s an astounding number when you realize that the U.S. average is 10 barrels per day per well. (Note that there are at least some possible reservoir targets in the Chainman, thin sand beds, but none have been proven and the Chainman is probably a source rock, not a reservoir.)

“Shale oil” is the phrase often applied to unconventional oil production, and the Bakken formation of North Dakota is the best example. It’s much less “unconventional” than real oil shale, because in shale oil, the oil is liquid. It’s just trapped in rocks that are very tight—meaning they have possibly abundant but often tiny pores to contain the oil, and their permeability, the ability of the oil to flow through the rock, is limited. So the way we try to exploit such deposits is not a simple vertical punch into the oil-bearing zone; you’d get precious little that way. Horizontal drilling is the common approach: drill down some 9,000 feet, make a right turn, then navigate your drill string through a 140-foot-thick zone that has oil—for another 9,000 feet. Fracture it to make the porosity better. That’s all expensive, but very doable, and that has turned North Dakota into one of the leading oil producing states in the U.S. in only a few years. Even so, the average North Dakota well only produces around 90 or so barrels per day.

So “oil shale,” or shale source rock, or “shale oil” – they are all really different!