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Materials Supply Chain

July 14, 2014

As an accident of natural selection, humans have ten fingers. This ten digit body plan is actually pervasive among species, so the apparently random choice of ten, and not eight or twelve, happened early in evolution. Such similarities among species are called homologies, and Darwin cited these as evidence for a common ancestor. It was easier for nature to use the same simple structures, so these persisted with just small variation.

Bone structure of a whale fin.

Bone structure of a whale fin, showing pentadactylity.

(Illustration by Volkov Vladislav Petrovich, via Wikimedia Commons.)

We have ten fingers, so our arithmetic is decimal. We tend to use whatever nature has given us. Our civilization is likewise built from the materials at hand. We use a lot of wood, and we found many millennia ago that scratching into Earth's crust a little can give you precious stones, and such useful metals as copper, silver, and gold. Later, we learned to extract iron from mined ores; and, much later, we learned how to make synthetic diamonds.

Austrian iron miners in Minnesota, 1911.

Austrian iron miners in Minnesota, 1911.

Coal may have fueled the Industrial Revolution, but its principal material was iron.

I wrote about Thomas Edison's iron mining venture in a previous article (Edison's Iron Mine, September 20, 2010).

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Fortunately, the Earth didn't solidify into a homogeneous mass. Because of thermochemical forces, some elements were concentrated into ores, and some geographical regions have more of one kind of ore than another. Rare earth elements, which are useful for making catalysts, photovoltaics and permanent magnets, have been mined in the United States, India, Brazil, and South Africa, but China is now the leading producer.

In a previous article (Rare Earth Shortage, June 21, 2010), I described how China had started to limit exports of these elements, and this policy has continued. China's limiting of rare earth exports has encouraged the reopening of mining operations elsewhere, but there's still the problem of extraction. As are many other chemical processes, extraction of rare earths from ore and their purification are not that environmentally friendly; but, how else can we get our motorized automobile windows?

Rare Earth production, 1950-2000

This graph illustrates how the US ceded its dominance in rare earth production to China in the mid-1980s. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

The rare earth elements are not the only chemical elements that are part of the high technology products we wouldn't want to live without. In a previous article (Energy Elements, May 11, 2011), I wrote about a joint report of the The American Physical Society (APS) and the Materials Research Society (MRS), "Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials For Emerging Technologies." [1-2] This report highlights the importance of many of the rare earth elements and other elements important to energy technologies; viz.,

Rare EarthsPt GroupOther
Lanthanum (La)Ruthenium (Ru)Cobalt (Co)
Cerium (Ce)Rhodium (Rh)Helium (He)
Praseodymium (Pr)Palladium (Pd)Lithium (Li)
Neodymium (Nd)Osmium (Os)Rhenium (Re)
Samarium (Sm)Iridium (Ir)Silver (Ag)
Europium (Eu)Platinum (Pt)
Gadolinium (Gd)
Terbium (Tb)Semiconductors
Dysprosium (Dy)Gallium (Ga)
Ytterbium (Yb)Germanium (Ge)
Lutetium (Lu)Selenium (Se)
Scandium (Sc)Indium (In)
Yttrium (Y)Tellurium (Te)

This report recommends product design for recycling and research and development on substitute materials. One mitigation technique cited in the report, but not likely to be popular, is lifestyle adaptation. No automatic automobile windows for you!

The US Department of Energy released a December, 2010, report on Critical Minerals Strategy.[3] This report highlights as "most critical" the rare earth elements, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium. Indium is also named as a most critical material. One interesting fact about indium, and a good reason for research on substitute materials, is that indium is a byproduct of zinc production. It's not likely that you would mine more zinc just to get more indium.

As if mineral scarcity wasn't enough, we now need to worry that our technology contains extracts from conflict minerals. These minerals are the technology equivalents of blood diamonds that are used to fund armed conflicts in Africa.

Although "3TG" might sound like a new cellphone service, this shorthand actually represents the four principal conflict minerals; namely, tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold. In the US, a miscellaneous provision of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 required companies to disclose the sources of these materials in their products.

Rulemaking by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which was charged with the oversight for this law, wasn't completed until 2012. Since that time, US companies have attempted to track the mineral sources of their products. The first reports were due on May 31, 2014.

As can be imagined, this is a difficult task for many companies, since it applies not only to products that they make, but also to products that they have made for them by contractors. In a May 29, 2014, filing, Apple, Inc. reported that "...all tantalum smelters in its supply chain had been designated 'conflict free'..."[4] As for the other metals, a majority were either certified as conflict free, or have been found to be so by an independent auditors. Says Apple,
"Apple will keep up the pressure until all unaudited smelters and refiners are either certified or removed from Apple's supply chain."[4]
Intel announced early this year that all its microprocessors would be free of conflict minerals.

In its own report, Honeywell, Inc., a large diversified manufacturer of such things as jet engines and building thermostats, wrote that it sells 915,000 products using materials from 24,000 direct material suppliers.[5] Honeywell does not deal with conflict mineral suppliers, directly, so it relies on reporting from its own suppliers. It has begun to require conflict mineral compliance into its new purchase agreements.[5]

Honeywell model T87 round thermostat

Honeywell model T87 round thermostat.

This extremely reliable device was based on the dissimilar thermal expansion of metals bonded together into a bimetallic strip and formed into a spiral shape. The electrical switch was a blob of mercury.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Robert Jaffe, Jonathan Price, Murray Hitzman and Francis Slakey, "The Back Page - Energy Critical Elements," APS News, vol. 20, no. 4, March, 2010.
  2. Energy Critical Elements: Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies, A Report from the APS Panel on Public Affairs Committee and the Materials Research Society (MRS), February 2011.
  3. Critical Minerals Strategy (US Department of Energy, December, 2010).
  4. Conflict Minerals Disclosure for January 1 to December 31, 2013, Apple Inc., May 29, 2014.
  5. Conflict Minerals Report for the Year Ended December, 2013, Honeywell, Inc.

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