Heavy Metals - Pacific Standard

Heavy Metals

A new book traces our dependence on rare elements—and the environmental costs of a revolution in global mining.
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The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. (Photo: Yale University Press)

The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. (Photo: Yale University Press)

For most of human history, the infrastructure of civilization—technology, in a word—was constructed with just a handful of elements. Trees provided wood (largely carbon and hydrogen) for shelter, ships, and fuel. The Earth provided stone and clay (largely silicon) for housing and pottery. Then came copper and tin (which, combined, make bronze, hence Bronze Age). Then iron, and a new Age. Additions trickled in over ensuing millennia: The Romans mined lead to plumb their baths and sewers; the Industrial Revolution put petroleum (like wood, a hydrocarbon) and aluminum on the list of industrial necessities. But well into the 20th century, as the eminent Yale University materials scientist Thomas Graedel has written, nearly every technology that society required comprised fewer than 20 chemical elements.

In a largely unremarked-upon development, that number skyrocketed in the last 30 years as digital and green technology became increasingly important. Were one to vaporize an iPhone or Prius in a mass spectrometer, the readout would display a bewildering array of unfamiliar and often unpronounceable elements: yttrium, lanthanum, praseodymium. A vaporized computer screen would reveal the presence of europium and terbium. A jet engine would reveal rhenium. Even a simple steel truck chassis would reveal niobium.

None of these elements is used in large quantities, but without them, microchips and hybrid cars would be less efficient; LEDs and LCDs less bright; steel inherently weaker. And there are many other elements that today play a similar, singular role. Graedel and his colleagues have identified no fewer than 62 of these "energy-critical elements," as they call them—others call them "technology metals" or "minor metals"—without which much modern technology would work markedly less well, if it worked at all.

Our now-common reliance on these obscure materials has had enormous social, economic, and environmental consequences. These are the subject of David S. Abraham's extraordinary new book, The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.

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As Abraham shows, with the rise of the Digital Age, the quirks of primordial geology have collided with the quirks of modern technology to produce a 21st-century "Gold" Rush on energy-critical elements. Many of the richest ores for the energy-critical elements happen to be located in developing nations. These resources are both a source of national wealth and a driver of government corruption. They attract concentrated, disruptive investment by giant multinationals and chaotic, unregulated "wild-catting" by thousands of individual miners. Their extraction fosters economic and infrastructural development, but often at the cost of appalling environmental destruction.

In every case, the upheaval is initially literal. The production of metals today almost always implies open-pit mining: the excavation and processing of massive amounts of raw earth by heavy machines in pursuit of relatively tiny amounts of final product. Abraham describes the CBMM niobium mine in Brazil: At 2.5 percent, its ore is the richest source of niobium on the planet. That means even this modern, well-run, environmentally responsible mine creates 40 tons of waste material for every ton of niobium it produces. At another mine, China's Bayan Obo, the story Abraham finds is incalculably worse. The mine produces so-called rare earth elements, a set of 17 chemically similar metals that are vital to modern lighting, video screens, and optics. For every ton of refined metals, the mine generates 20,000 gallons of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive waste.

"These are dumped into a tailings lake, leaving the air so acrid it burns the eyes," Abraham writes. "Because environmental precautions have not been high on the mine operator's agenda, the tailings lake wasn't properly lined; its contents contaminated the surrounding soil...." Residents of the nearby village of Dalahai, Abraham writes, "developed skin rashes, respiratory diseases, osteoporosis, and cancer. Villagers had a hard time keeping their teeth." The mine operator Abraham delicately refers to is, effectively, the Chinese government; Dalahai, as a result of its lax environmental laws, is "one of about 450 'cancer villages' in the country."

Set against stories like these is a story we hear far more often: that the modern technologies made possible by energy-critical elements are "greener" than what came before. Here, Abraham is admirably fair—which means he's often skeptical. It is true, for example, that niobium, infinitesimally alloyed at several ounces per ton with steel, dramatically increases steel's strength. When used to construct vehicles, this stronger steel lowers weight, increasing fuel efficiency. Using less steel also means making less steel—which means less coal burned to smelt the ore, less diesel burned to transport it to the smelters, and so on.

But the story is less clear for some of the overtly "green" technologies: LED bulbs, LCD screens, electric-car motors, and the generators of wind turbines. "Nokia and Apple," Abraham notes as an example, "found that a mere 15 percent of the greenhouse gases generated by the entire lifecycle of many of their products comes from the electricity needed to charge them." The other 85 percent comes largely from manufacturing—and especially from the production of the rare elements that underpin the technologies. In time, Abraham argues (echoing a legion of scientists and engineers), the environmental benefits of these technologies will offset the impact of their manufacture: "Mining is not antithetical to a green economy; it's a necessity." But that future does not give carte blanche to consume today. "When we import Kindles, we export pollution," Abraham writes, and if there's a terser summation of the conundrum of energy-critical elements, I've never read it.

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Although I've written extensively about modern mining and its consequences, I've never read anything that approaches the comprehensive expertise of The Elements of Power. Beyond his scholarship, Abraham's reporting deserves special praise. Miners and metals dealers do not always welcome outside inquiry. Yet Abraham talked his way inside secret worlds all over the globe. Among many other characters, we meet Yudi, a freelance broker of illegal mined metals in Indonesia; "Super Mario," a Japanese importer of rare earth elements; and Noah Lehrman, New York metals trader and "likely the only person in history to both perform at the Jewish Grateful Deadfest and advise Congress on resource security."

If I have any criticism, it is that Abraham introduces that last topic—resource security—in just the second chapter of his book. The idea that the West's national security is threatened by its reliance on developing world metals is a somewhat popular one; certainly, it has caught the ear of many members of Congress, who are quick to cite it when promoting federal subsidies for domestic mines. Abraham is far too subtle to spin such a simple tale (besides which, the Pentagon dismisses the idea). But casual readers may get the impression that this is a book about Western national security, when in fact it is a book about how these newly valuable materials can both strengthen and threaten the economic, social, and environmental security of everyone who touches them.

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