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The Rare Metal Age

The AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy hosted a luncheon, The Rare Metal Age, on November 9, 2015, focusing on David S. Abraham’s recent book The Elements of Power.

Eli Kintisch, the event’s moderator, began with the surprising statement, “A person today consumes ten times the amount of minerals that they did at the beginning of the twentieth century.”

Abraham put this fact into context by holding up his smartphone. “What amazes me most about the smart phone is it takes roughly half the elements known to man to make this thing. There’s indium in the phone, which allows your finger to interact with the applications. It serves as this transparent conductor. There’s dysprosium, which helps with the vibration. There are even metals that help make the iPhone. There’s cerium, which buffs the glass super smooth. So each one fills a very specific role, and without one of them, there’s a problem to produce at all.”

But smart phones are not the only technology that requires rare metals. These metals are also used in more energy-efficient batteries, wind turbines, and air conditioners. There is an increasing demand for these metals and, therefore, understanding the supply chain, and the political implications of each supply chain, is very important. 

Abraham first became interested in this issue while working at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The concept of how important rare metals, and rare earths in particular, are to the modern world became apparent when China cut off rare earth exports to Japan during a territorial dispute. “What amazed me was, after China had restricted what seemed to be these obscure materials, Japan capitulated on a lot of China’s demand[s],” Abraham said. “So I did some digging and found out that China exports and produces roughly 95 percent or 98 [percent] depending what you read, and that Japan is wholly dependent on China.” These materials, which Abraham had thought were “obscure,” were actually vital to Japan’s economy.

Abraham’s book, The Elements of Power, explains how complex our relationship with rare metals has become. A major issue he brings up is the average time it takes to set up a supply line. Abraham compares the production of some rare metals to fifteen–year-old-scotch: “It takes fifteen years to produce,” and it is not a process that can be sped up. One of the biggest issues we are facing is how to anticipate today what our needs will be in 2030.

As the supply lines require careful foresight and political considerations, Abraham is trying to stimulate a push for government awareness of rare metals. After World War II, the U.S. Department of State had a non-ferrous metal office. “We had more money going into titanium back then than goes to all critical materials now,” Abraham said. Ultimately, he thinks the United States needs to “set up the structures so that scientists can communicate and understand what’s going on, and then give them the funding to think of broader research.”

Jake Rose contributed to this article.