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Welcome to the Rare Metal Age


David S Abraham is in London at the Royal Institute of International Affairs to talk about his book, The Elements of Power, to a small audience of people gathered from the world of resources. To make his point, he holds out and unfurls a long tangled piece of hair-wire and asks for a lighter. After a bit of rustling in pockets, a lighter is produced and, under the disdainful portrait of the First Earl of Chatham, William Pitt the elder, he places a flame under various parts of the wire. While the attendees gape a little in fear for tomorrow’s headlines, we watch as the wire reforms to a perfect neat and tidy coil. What we have witnessed is one example of the present day magic of materials science. The alloy is Nitinol, an alloy of titanium and nickel, so called ‘the shape memory metal’. Cast at a certain temperature, after cooling, it may be deformed; yet, when heat is re-applied, it remembers the shape it came from.

While this example is theatrical, memory alloys have actually been around for a while. Merely adding 1.8% of beryllium to copper is a kind of memory alloy – it makes soft (ductile) copper, springy. It is an example of metallurgical memory without which our homes would be as dim as candlelight. Harnessed to our human need for energy in the home, shaped stampings of beryllium-copper hidden in plugs and light-switches may perform a spring action a million times before its elasticity is lost.

This older alloy is itself being replaced today in robotics by a new alloy developed by NGK in Japan, in which between 0.5% of zirconium and up to 5%, is doped into copper and then drawn into ultra-fine wires as thin as 10 microns. Replacing beryllium with the less toxic zirconium may have been one of the motives but, in doing so, NGK discovered that, at these dosages, the electro-conductivity and tensile strength of this new hypoeutectic copper-zirconium alloy wire is greater than beryllium copper. The only problem with this great advance – as with so many others – is “where will the zirconium come from?” And about this theme, the availability and flow of minor metals in the rare metal age Abraham has much to say.

‘A flying periodic table’

We are living in the Rare Metal Age, Abraham says. Never before has there been such a proliferation of technologies and advances in materials science, eating into the supply of minor metals, rare earth elements and plundering the world of by-products. So great is the demand and so fast the technological changes that these once disregarded elements could become the subject of war.

The F35 (Joint Strike Fighter), Abraham describes as “a flying periodic table”. Our mobile phone is a portable periodic table, the LEDs in our homes are illuminating periodic tables; the stents in our hearts, the prosthetics knitted to our human bones, the glass fibre that carries light across the globe and the special steels that carry our gas, are all examples of periodic table applications that would surprise Mendeleev. How vulnerable are these items to the removal, or delay in supply, of just one un-substitutable element needed in their production?

Abraham has been exhaustive in his travels; from his visits to CBMM in Brazil (the world’s largest niobium producer), to Sillamae in Estonia where the Soviets once produced uranium, oil from shale and today continue to process rare earths. He reports from Bayan Obo in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, where lakes of toxic acid tailings are testament to the human price of rare earth production. It causes him to question whether the very human triumph of harnessing elements for astonishing applications is sustainable. And here at the Institute of International Affairs, the centre for the study of geopolitics he asks, “Could the demand for rare metals in the rare metal age lead to war?”

The geopolitics of rare earths

In the last few years there have been a number of excellent books featuring the periodic table: Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ Periodic Tales (2011), Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters (2013), and John Emsley’s Nature’s Building Blocks (2003) as well as Touchpress’s The Elements APP. Abraham’s book differs in theme from those mentioned by looking at elements through the lens of geopolitics – the place where geography, geology and politics meet.

It is an illuminating angle that Abraham has explored through visits to South America, China, Taiwan, Japan, the Baltics and Russia. The theme is that the proliferation of new technologies are exploiting elements that were once so minor as not to be recovered, or merely regarded as a nuisance. Today, Abraham suggests, applications risk being stymied or delayed because of the inability of the market to deliver in a stable way. Taking CBMMs niobium output as a positive minor metal story, he shows how this entity, able to supply the world’s needs in niobium on its own, has husbanded its resources, mined sustainably and promoted Niobium’s use in ways – such as its historic adoption in steel – which could be said to produce a green outcome. In contrast, he suggests, China’s handling of its rare earth resource, the holding back of supply to Japan following the Senkaku trawler incident in the East China Sea in 2010, and the uncertainty about rare earth supply, is a threat to the world and the modern technologies of the Rare Metal Age.

Abraham is an eloquent speaker and writer and no one interested in the world of minor metals will fail to enjoy his anecdotes and illustrations. I confess I did not know that William Senter, major general and chief of procurement of the US Air Force had, in 1957, set himself the task to find a material that could be “practically weightless, incredibly strong, infinitely heat resistant and easily cast at negligible cost” and had dubbed it “Unobtainium”. In fact the element that came to his rescue and came close to all his requirements was in fact titanium.

China: Abraham’s ‘bugbear’

However, it is a small a step to go from illuminating the astonishing uses to which minor metals may be put, to accusing those that possess those elements on their territory from holding them back. China is of course the bugbear and by Abraham’s account stands accused of both holding back rare earth elements and, at the same time, producing too many of them at a low cost causing massive pollution, to the detriment of rare earth mining and production in the West. All partly true, but it is hard not to wonder whether Abraham’s White House perspective is rather more concerned that the particular nation holding back rare earth production is not America.

Yes, the geopolitics has changed; the geology means that China has the most accessible rare earths on the globe, washed easily with acid from the clays in which it is held, conferring power. But a fair person would perhaps have to admit that China’s resource nationalism thus expressed contrasts with the Africa’s acquiescence in the face of foreign investors removing valuable minerals from the continent with little benefit to the countries concerned and without developing downstream uses. China stands alone, as a developing country, in attempting not to sell the mineral but to sell the car or the wind turbine that depends on the mineral. Perhaps America is frustrated that, unlike their dominance in other resources, such as aluminium, here are resources where power lies elsewhere?

Abraham and I also disagree on the solution. His is the creation of a new entity – an “International Materials Agency”, akin to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which would produce statistics and transparency to counter the short-term vagaries of the market. Perhaps I would argue that taxpayers money is better spent building hospitals. The rare earth boom, according Abraham’s interpretation, was caused by China holding back rare earths but I have to ask whether there is any evidence that products were not produced or orders for the supply of rare earths not delivered at a price? As someone involved, what I think we saw was that the rise in prices for rare earths attracted selling from all corners of apparently not-so-monolithic China. The price of neodymium indeed reached $550 per kg in 2011 but had fallen just as quickly to below $50 per kg by 2015. The market price had acted as a light, attracting supply and sellers and I must confess I have not seen a government agency that could have produced that effect.

This is an excellent book and one that adds sense and anecdotes to the iPhone, iPad, robotic, fibre-optic, super alloy world we now inhabit. If Abraham gets his job as head of the agency he is intent on promoting, it will at least be in the hands of someone who has worn out the boot leather in visiting the places from which minor metals come.

Published June 16th 2016 on