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Rare Metals: The Hidden Ingredients of Our Modern World

When Gustave Eiffel constructed the tower that bears his name, he required 7,000 tons of steel. Presently, by incorporating a small quantity of the scarce metal niobium into each ton of steel, one can reduce the steel requirement by 5,000 tons in order to replicate the Eiffel Tower.

An electric toothbrush oscillates 31,000 times per minute, and the driving force behind these high-frequency vibrations lies in the utilization of diminutive magnets containing rare metals such as neodymium and dysprosium. Resembling a flying periodic table of elements, the F-35 fighter jet employs 920 pounds (approximately 417 kilograms) of beryllium, gallium, lithium, and tantalum. A quarter of the fuselage is composed of titanium.

Within his literary work, “The Elements of Power,” David Abraham asserts: “We have silently embarked upon a new epoch—the age of rare metals. The commodities we employ in our daily lives, ranging from smartphones to automobiles, necessitate substantial quantities of elusive metals. Each era possesses its distinctive resources: iron furnishes weaponry; coal, oil, and natural gas bestow illumination and electricity. Now, rare earths, indium, and tungsten have paramount applications. Rare metals embody the vanguard of modern high-tech, eco-friendly industries, and form the bedrock of the military sector.”

What renders Apple’s phone so extraordinary is its utilization of nearly half of the elements found on our planet. It is these metals that endow Apple phones with diminutive dimensions and enhanced potency: Indium serves as an imperceptible link, a transparent conductor, between the phone and one’s fingertips; europium and terbium provide the vibrant reds and greens displayed on the screen, while tantalum regulates the power within your phone. Rare metals are also employed in the fabrication of iPhone components: cerium refines the smoothness of the glass at the molecular level. “Jobs not only revolutionized the mobile phone, but also facilitated the reinvention of the world’s resource supply chain.”

Rare metals permeate various aspects of our lives, from towering bridges to the earbuds of headphones. They are present in sofas, camera lenses, computers, bridges, and automobiles. Rare metals seldom stand alone; they resemble the yeast in pizza. Devoid of that minuscule quantity of yeast, pizza would not exist; without rare metals, the high-tech world would cease to be. Rare metals are not necessarily scarce in terms of geological reserves; their rarity stems from their usage in minute quantities and the arduous refining and synthesis processes they entail. The global annual consumption of each rare metal amounts to only a few hundred or thousand tons, a quantity that can fit within a railroad car. In contrast, copper mines produce 1.4 million tons per year. Acquiring 1 ounce of rhenium necessitates 120 tons of copper ore. Extracting lithium from brine requires one to two years. The true scarcity lies in the realm of metallurgists, as these metals are chemically engineered and cannot be directly mined.

Until 150 years ago, nearly all the materials present in a person’s abode originated from nearby forests or quarries. By the 1960s, as more sophisticated supply chains emerged and the demand for consumer goods surged, an average American home employed approximately 20 elements. In the 1990s, Intel utilized a mere 15 elements for chip production. Presently, the company’s products utilize almost 60 elements. Edison’s light bulbs solely contained a metallic filament; in contrast, contemporary LED light bulbs resemble computer hardware, incorporating gallium, indium, and rare earths.

The American Chemical Society has determined that 44 out of 94 natural elements will face supply risks by the coming century. Rare metals constitute essential components of green technologies, such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels. These technologies harness free resources like sunlight and wind, converting them into electricity. However, if the current supply capacity remains unimproved, the opportunity to develop the green technologies necessary for mitigating climate change will be nonexistent.