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Trade metals and see the world!

In 2020 U.S. astronaut Christina Koch returned to earth 328 days after arriving at the Intl Space Station. It was the longest time spent in space by a female astronaut. But was she aware she landed next to an ex Gulag and Kazakhstan's oldest copper mine?

I had a metal friend who used to pack his case to China with Mars bars. As far as I know he never got to appreciate his hosts’ food and pined each night for Manchester meat and potato pies. If it wasn’t for the local beer, I can’t imagine how he would have survived. But he enjoyed his travels and saw parts of the world that are a privilege. Such opportunities are open to most metal people because no country possesses within its territory all the elements in the periodic table. Neither Russia, China, nor America. America famously lacks nickel, Russia bauxite, China iron ore etc etc. So, metal trading becomes the way in which the world rectifies a deficit in one place with a surplus in another. And if you are lucky in your career, you will become the conduit. Who would have thought that Stalin’s wish to enter the space race would cause a copper mine in the middle of the Kazakh Steppe to be the source of the 75th most abundant element in the periodic table - rhenium? It is one of my life’s best travel memories to have voyaged there. In my peregrinations I always took my running shoes, and I can recommend this. Running will assist the metal traveller to feel the earth of another country under the feet – to know a place rather than hover over it. Dhezkazgan, where the rhenium was located, was once a Gulag, a place to which Stalin consigned ethnic Germans from the west and Koreans from the east. Together they excavated the mines and developed technology to extract the 100 ppm of rhenium from its copper concentrates. In the 1950s the nameplate output was 20mt per year when the world annual consumption was less than 1mt. How do I know this? Because a white Russian emigree by the name of Alexander Sutulov escaped to Chile and in a Cold War gain for the West brought the rhenium knowledge with him. He wrote it all down in a book entitled Mineral Resources & the Economy of the USSR (1973) and another called Molybdenum and Rhenium 1778-1977 (1976). Incredibly useful books for me as they contained information that breached the east west divide. As I jogged round Dhezkazgan, I glimpsed cottage gardens like any here in Somerset where I now live - leeks, tomatoes, aubergines, and cucumbers cultivated in a homely way around small one-storey dwellings. Many, the dwellings of former Gulag labourers or their descendants, who made this place home in the absence of anywhere else to go to after incarceration. Dhezkazgan was a prison without walls, easier to appreciate from the sky as I stared out of the window of my small plane flying from Almaty. Below it was possible to pick out the lines in the sand that were trade routes created by old nomadic tribes – sands, which were once an ancient seabed and today contain the fossils of a millennia of sea creatures making Kazakshtan one of the world’s greatest suppliers of oil and gas. All these things you can read in books, but what a wonderful opportunity for a young metal merchant to be despatched off the tourist route on metal hunting trips to see production and meet suppliers. Soon the heart learns to skip a beat at the sight of a chimney, slag pile, scrapyard, or smelter. It mellows with vodka toasts, and will salivate at the thought of shashliks cooked over open wood fires, perhaps consumed beside a mountain stream while locals sing songs of their culture. Noel Coward once wrote a song called ‘Why do all the wrong people travel’, but he was thinking mainly of clusters of tourists on their way to the South of France. Metal travel lifts the soul in different ways. It takes you to places where a beach is of limited interest unless it is for the mining of zirconia, titania or scheelite and where the hotel may be no more than a hostel adjoined to a factory, and the sights require no payment at the door. Bon Voyage! By Anthony Lipmann

Published in the July 2022 edition of The Crucible

part of a series of articles directed towards younger persons entering the metal trade


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