We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Secret Sauce of Hi-Tech: Obscure Metals

The metals of modern technology lie hidden in a handful of unlikely spots, from frozen Russian plains to sweltering African valleys.

By Andrew Grant
Aug 17, 2009 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:20 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

1. Tantalum It is a soft, grayish-blue metal with a melting point of 5,463 degrees Fahrenheit (higher than all but two other elements) and, more important, an exceptional ability to store electric charge. This property makes tantalum perfect for producing the electricity-storing capacitors ubiquitous in the circuit boards of computers, digital cameras, and cell phones. “Tantalum is used in every electronic device there is,” says Jack Lifton, an independent consultant specializing in technology metals. “We don’t know any other way to make practical devices.” Tantalum is refined from ores such as coltan, a rock composed of the minerals columbite and tantalite.

The source The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a major supplier, although you would not know that from the official numbers. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) does not list the Central African nation as a leading tantalum source, yet for years rogue militias have managed to smuggle Congolese coltan out onto the market. According to a 2008 United Nations report, over the past decade armed smugglers from the Congo and neighboring countries have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars while routinely sexually assaulting women and enslaving children as miners or soldiers. They have also ravaged the Congo’s lush forests, killing endangered gorillas and other rare animals in the quest to dig up more coltan. (Some electronics manufacturers, including Apple and Motorola, have pledged not to purchase metals from the war-torn nation.) The illegal trade also undercuts legitimate suppliers. In December the mining firm Talison suspended operations at an Australian quarry that was the largest tantalum mine in the world, partially because of coltan smuggling.

World Production: 900 tons per year Market Price: $36 per pound

Salar de Uyuni | iStockphoto

2. Lithium The lightest metal on the periodic table, lithium is a key ingredient in batteries that power laptops, digital cameras, and cell phones. Most of this lithium comes from salt lakes located up to hundreds of feet beneath some of the driest places on earth. Miners pump brine from the lakes up into evaporation ponds on the surface. Once the water evaporates, lithium carbonate is extracted from the residue. According to Chilean mining company SQM, lithium demand for batteries has risen 20 percent annually for the past five years; hybrid and electric cars should keep that trend going.

The source Chile is today’s lithium powerhouse. Most of the country’s 3.3 million tons of lithium sits beneath a 1,120-square-mile salt desert, Salar de Atacama. Neighboring Argentina possesses a 220-square-mile salt deposit. The two countries exported nearly 17,000 tons of lithium in 2008. Bolivia currently does not have any lithium mining operations, but its 4,000-square-mile Salar de Uyuni salt desert probably holds almost half the world’s reserves. Could a shift to battery-powered cars transform Bolivia into the next OPEC? Lithium expert Brian Jaskula of the USGS brushes off such speculation. “There is so much capacity from established producers that we may not even need Bolivia for a long time,” he says.

World Production: 30,200 tons per year Market Price: $1 per pound

3. Platinum Along with five chemically similar metals (palladium, rhodium, iridium, ruthenium, and osmium), platinum is vital to the automotive and electronics industries. Auto parts manufacturers use it in the catalytic converters that break down nitrogen compounds and other pollutants from engine exhaust. Platinum is in the magnetic layer of many computer hard drives to increase storage capacity, and platinum-rhodium alloys are used in the glass for LCD televisions. Platinum is also crucial to the reactions in fuel cells, which combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity.

The sourceThe Bushveld Igneous Complex in South Africa, a 25,000-square-mile mineral fortress of crystallized volcanic magma, accounts for 78 percent of the world’s platinum supply. After a power outage shut down Bushveld’s mining operations for a week in January 2008, the price of platinum-group metals skyrocketed for months. Thieves in the United States plucked catalytic converters from cars nationwide and reportedly fetched as much as $10,000 for an ounce of rhodium. The global recession has knocked those prices back down to reasonable levels, but a recent report by the National Research Council warns of likely future fluctuations in the price and supply levels of platinum-group metals.

World Production: 220 tons per year Market Price: $1,580 per ounce

4. Rare Earth Metals The 17 rare earth metals, which include such obscure elements as gadolinium and dysprosium, are becoming invaluable for electronics and for energy-efficient technologies. For example, europium allows your television to display vibrant reds; neodymium is a key ingredient in the magnets used in hybrid-vehicle motors; and yttrium is in fluorescent lightbulbs. Although rare earths are not as scarce as the term suggests, minable deposits appear in precious few economically viable locations.

The source China has come to dominate the supply. Before 1984, the United States mined virtually all the rare earths it needed at the Mountain Pass mine in California. Then the Chinese entered the market with lower prices and put Mountain Pass out of the mining business. Today 97 percent of rare earths come from China. Political conflict or cutbacks in exports could drastically disrupt the market. In 1992 Chinese president Deng Xiaoping ominously said: “There is oil in the Middle East. There is rare earth in China.” A U.S. company wants to restart mining operations at Mountain Pass, but the plan faces environmental obstacles and a restart cost of millions of dollars.

World Production: 117,000 tons per year Market Price: $68 per pound (yttrium)

5. Indium The hot metal of the 21st century, indium is crucial for the transparent, electrically conducting coatings on LCD televisions and computer monitors. U.S. consumption of the metal shot up 30 percent from 2004 to 2008, and it could rise further if demand for solar energy continues to expand: Indium is an essential coating on photovoltaic cells. Indium is more abundant in the earth’s crust than silver, but unlike silver it never appears on its own; instead, producers must extract it from zinc minerals, so the supply of indium depends on the demand for zinc.

The source China has a firm grasp on its status as the world’s leading supplier of indium. Last year the Chinese Ministry of Commerce set export quotas on the metal for the first time. Then, in March 2009, China Minmetals struck a $1.2 billion deal for the world’s second-largest zinc mine, located in Australia. Unlike the situation with rare earth metals, though, indium-hungry companies have some supply options. Canada accounts for one-fifth of U.S. indium imports and holds the world’s largest known indium reserve at Mount Pleasant, located 40 miles north of the Maine border.

World Production: 625 tons per year Market Price: $300 per pound

6. PalladiumPalladium is used by auto parts manufacturers as a cheaper alternative for catalytic converters—for now, it is less than a quarter the price of platinum. Palladium also appears in energy-storing capacitors used in virtually every electronic device.

The source The MMC Norilsk Nickel mining company in Russia is the world’s top producer of palladium, primarily from its mines in Siberia. In churning out high-demand metals, Norilsk also spews vast amounts of heavy metals into the environment. In fact, the area around the mines is so heavily contaminated with metal shavings that locals can mine the soil for profit. Norilsk factories also emit 2 million tons of acid rain–causing sulfur dioxide per year, roughly 1 percent of all that is emitted worldwide. The nonprofit Blacksmith Institute rated Norilsk one of the top 10 most polluted places on earth. According to the Institute’s 2007 report, residents complain that “the snow is black, the air tastes of sulfur, and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average.” Slammed by bad publicity, Norilsk Nickel recently pledged money to reduce emissions, but the company admits that its goal to reduce annual sulfur dioxide emissions to 400,000 tons by 2015 is a long shot.

World Production: 225 tons per year Market Price: $355 per ounce

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.