Unobtainiums and electric toothbrushes

Thanks to reestheskin for this.

From The Economist’s book review – The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. By David Abraham. Yale University Press, 319 pages; $30 and £20.

So remember when you’re prescribing electric toothbrushes just what goes into them and what they cost the earth.

UnknownLIKE this reviewer, many parents will have given their children electric toothbrushes for Christmas, hoping that the sensors that buzz after two minutes will keep them brushing longer than their flimsy elbow grease. Both generations may, however, be ignorant of the fact that in that time the toothbrushes produce more than 62,000 strokes; that the power to generate such motion comes from tiny magnets using three rare metals, neodymium, dysprosium and boron; and that some of these metals are so coveted that in 2010 they were at the centre of a dangerous rift between China and Japan.

In all, an electric toothbrush is made of 35 metals. The journey they take to children’s gums may involve China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Russia, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and other countries too. They are rare, says David Abraham in “The Elements of Power”, a thought- provoking book that follows the trail of these elements, not because they are necessarily scarce or hard to extract. It is because they are used in tiny yet essential quantities—like yeast in a pizza.

In terms of amounts consumed, these metals pale compared with base metals such as aluminium and copper. But, as the book argues, they are no less transformative— and possibly just as valuable—as oil and coal. That is a bold claim, but the author backs it up convincingly. Using vivid detail, he injects life and purpose into the story of elements that are so light, strong, heat- resistant and elusive that an American general in the 1950s quipped that they should be called “unobtainium”.

Indium, part of an iPhone’s screen, is an “invisible link…between the phone and your finger”. Just a pinch of niobium, a soft, granite-grey metal mined mostly in Brazil, greatly strengthens a tonne of steel used in bridges and pipelines. Lithium is so light that it has become essential for rechargeable car-batteries. Dysprosium, as well as making an electric toothbrush whirr, helps power wind turbines. Military technology depends on numerous rare metals. Tungsten, for instance, is crucial for armour-piercing bullets. America’s forthcoming F-35 fighter planes are “flying periodic tables”, Mr Abraham writes.

As with oil, those who can secure the resources have access to immense power. The problem, the book laments, is that China, Japan and South Korea are more keenly aware of the strategic importance of rare metals than Western countries, including the United States.

Yet it is not just the rare metals that the book explores. As Mr Abraham follows their extraction, he finds geologists, refiners, traders, smugglers and boffins whose stories add to the intrigue of this shadowy trade. Deals are done in backrooms by likeable mavericks. One, a New Yorker called Noah Lehrman, is described as “likely the only person in history to perform at the Jewish Grateful DeadFest and advise the US Congress on resource more security”.

“The Elements of Power” turns out to be a critic as well as an advocate of the rare-metals trade. One concern is what the author calls the “long tailpipe” of pollution left in the wake of mining and refining, notwithstanding the role of minor metals in creating greener products.

Supplies are also a worry. In 2010 a Chinese trawler rammed Japanese coastguard vessels in waters near islands called the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese (their ownership is disputed by both countries). After the Chinese captain was detained, supplies of rare metals from the mainland to Japan suspiciously dried up. Though China never acknowledged an export ban, the incident caused rare-metal prices to spike, and unsettled manufacturers around the world. Though Japan quickly released the captain, repercussions of the affair pop up through the book.

Mr Abraham would have done well to use more such central narratives—the story, perhaps, of dysprosium, which has one of the most fascinating and fragile supply chains. Yet he persuasively explains the danger of underestimating a business that, by one estimate, generates $4 billion of revenues a year and also plays a critical role in systems worth about $4 trillion. China, which develops more rare metals than any other country, understands the calculus. The West, his book suggests, does not.

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