Michael Burleigh


The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

By David S Abraham

Yale University Press 319pp £20 order from our bookshop

Books on resource wars are ten a penny and usually focus on oil or water conflicts. David Abraham’s attractively written book is unusual because it deals with commodities lurking in plain sight within cars, planes, fibre-optic cables, structural steels, LED lights, cameras, computers, televisions, MRI scanners, military night-vision goggles, missile guidance systems and smart phones – the rare metals.

Take niobium. When Gustave Eiffel built the tower that bears his name, he needed seven thousand tons of steel. With the addition of a pinch of niobium to each ton of steel, a modern replica could be built using five thousand tons fewer. A Boeing 747 has six million components per plane, including about seventy earth metals, such as rhenium, which enables jet engines to run at high temperatures, and titanium, which lightens the fuselage. Both of these reduce the amount of aviation fuel burned.

With little exaggeration Abraham speaks of ‘a war to control the periodic table’, for these ninety-four naturally occurring elements are not evenly distributed and they have very obvious military applications. For example, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is like a flying periodic table, containing 920 pounds of beryllium, gallium, lithium and tantalum, not to mention the titanium used for a quarter of the airframe. The strategic problem is that the US relies on imports for about 75 per cent of its rare metals, with like-for-like synthetic substitution a great deal more complicated than eliminating sugar from beverages and foods.

By and large these metals are found wherever magma has forced its way through the earth’s crust, combining with oxygen and water to peculiar chemical effect. While some of these metals can be produced by the extensive crushing and pulverisation of ores, the extraction of others requires much more complex metallurgical processes. To obtain an ounce of rhenium, for example, you need 120 tons of copper ore. It takes between one and two years to extract lithium from saltwater. Ironically, the real rarity is skilled metallurgists, since geologists dominate the extractive industries. In effect, these metals are chemical creations rather than something you just dig out of the ground, like coal.

As it happens, China controls about 40 per cent of rare metal production, though places such as Afghanistan are also generously endowed and would profit handsomely were it safe enough to exploit them. The importance of China’s near-monopoly on some metals is indicated by the fact that 60 per cent of the world’s antimony – used in fire retardants – comes from the Xikuangshan Mine in Hunan. When, in 2010, the Japanese authorities detained a large Chinese trawler after it deliberately rammed one of their patrol vessels off the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing quickly brought Tokyo to heel by simply prohibiting exporters of thirty-two rare metals from selling to Japan.

More generally, by lowering domestic prices (while increasing export tariffs) the Chinese have incentivised hundreds of foreign manufacturing firms (including Japanese ones) to establish plants in China for, inter alia, solar panels and wind turbines, so that they can reduce costs and shorten their supply chains. They reason that if mining or producing rare metals is worth billions, the value of the end products runs into the trillions. Entire industries, from manufacturers of low-energy light bulbs to makers of solar panels, are relocating to China, not because labour is cheap (it no longer is in comparison with, say, Mexico), but because the materials are.

The rare metal industry is quite different from industries involving base metals, such as copper and zinc. Whereas annual global copper production is around fifteen million tons, most rare metals produced would comfortably fill a few railway freight wagons. Their pricing is surprisingly volatile, despite their rarity, for the rate of technological redundancy is also steep. Securing control of the upstream supply chain can be a costly and risky business. Ford Motors cunningly decided to stockpile palladium, used in catalytic converters. Their purchasers, more used to buying copper and steel, the costs of which remain relatively stable, paid more than $1,000 per ounce after Russia hiked the price. But Ford’s own engineers simultaneously discovered how to halve the amount of palladium used by focusing the material within converters, leaving the company with a $1 billion loss when the palladium price reverted to $300 an ounce.

Environmentalists often deplore the physical and human damage caused by promiscuous mining. Yet their desire for more green vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines is precisely what is driving increased mining of rare metals, which are used in permanent magnets that drive the motors and lithium batteries that store the energy.

The financial costs of mining are truly enormous, though not of the order of the $6 billion or so it takes BHP Billiton or Vale to launch a major copper, platinum or iron ore mine. Even the feasibility studies cost millions and it can take up to five years before deposits are considered commercially viable. Then it is necessary to construct a demonstration plant to show investors that the chemical processes involved in converting ore to rare metals work. By the time the environmental impact has been assessed and government permissions have been obtained, the costs are in the region of $100 million. Since the road from conception to production can take up to fifteen years, anxious investors need constant reassurance from executives of what are often small mining operations, who could of course be engaged in simply ramping up their own firm’s share price on alternative investment indices to make a fast buck.

As a former Lehman Brothers analyst, Abraham is well placed to follow the journey of rare metals from mines (many of which are open cast) to processing centres, including an ex-Soviet facility in Estonia, and then to market via shadowy traders who specialise in these commodities. He tells his story in an extremely engaging manner, so you do not have to dimly recall school lessons on the periodic table to enjoy it. It prompts one to consider why a smart-phone screen magnifies detail with the touch of a finger, or how it is that supermarket freezer glass never frosts up. The rapid rise of a global middle class, which will increase by two billion in the next two decades, means that demand for rare metals will grow fivefold. Doubtless, human ingenuity will reduce some of the demand – for example, by devising a way of extracting palladium from the plants that absorb exhaust gases beside roadways – but Abraham’s main message is that we need products that can be improved or repaired (rather than having an in-built ‘death clock’, like most Apple devices) and that we should recycle more assiduously what are actually valuable materials within that old computer or phone. A circular economy, with measures for utilising products ‘after death’, would save about $1 trillion in the cost of mining and manufacturing new materials and create about a million new jobs in Europe alone. This is a remarkable book that genuinely changes how one views such objects as the iMac I am typing this review on or the iPhone buzzing on my desk.

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