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Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our…

Rare: The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on…

by Keith Veronese

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[Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com). I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.]

It was in T.C. McCarthy's great science-fiction novel Germline that I was first introduced to the concept of rare metals -- basically the same class of elements as more well-known items like aluminum and titanium, but found in even tinier amounts in the natural world, and that up to our modern age had been virtually useless as a practical material -- and the coming military wars that will eventually be fought over their deposits mostly in central Asia, because of it turning out that such ultra-contemporary items as cellphones and tablet computers simply cannot be made without them. And now here's an entire nonfiction book on the subject, from the always reliable "science for the masses" publisher Prometheus, which walks us step by step through everything you might ever want to know about the subject -- from their original discoveries in the Victorian Age, to the actual science behind why they're so valuable in electronics, what this has to do with plutonium and nuclear reactions, why that relationship fueled a lot of these discoveries during the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, and a lot more. Just a bit too technical at points, which would be my only complaint, mostly this is a fascinating and easy-to-follow guide to an obscure but hugely important subject, one that will be in the headlines every day once our grandchildren are adults; and for anyone who is curious about what makes the teeny-tiny devices of our modern world work as well as they do, this is well worth picking up.

Out of 10: 9.6 ( )
  jasonpettus | Feb 19, 2015 |
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"How will your life change when the supply of tantalum dries up? You may have never heard of this unusual metal, but without it smartphones would be instantly less omniscient, video game systems would falter, and laptops fail. Tantalum is not alone. Rhodium. Osmium. Niobium. Such refugees from the bottom of the periodic table are key components of many consumer products like cell phones, hybrid car batteries, and flat screen televisions, as well as sophisticated medical devices and even weapon systems. Their versatile properties have led manufacturers to seek these elements out to maximize longevity, value, and efficiency, but not without a human price. In addition to explaining the chemistry behind rare earth metals, Rare delves into the economic and geopolitical issues surrounding these "conflict minerals," blending tales of financial and political struggles with glimpses into the human lives that are shattered by the race to secure them. In the past decade, the Congo has been ravaged by tribal wars fought to obtain control of tantalum, tungsten, and tin supplies in the region, with over five million people dying at the crossroads of supply and demand. A burgeoning black market in China, Africa, and India is propped up by school-age children retrieving and purifying these metals while risking their lives and health in the process. Fears of future political struggles inside China, the world's largest supplier of these metals, have already sent the United States, Great Britain, and Japan racing to find alternative sources. Will scientists be able to create lab substitutes for some or all of these metals? Will Afghanistan be the next big supplier of rare metals? What happens when the limited supply runs out? Whatever the answers, it is clear that our modern lifestyle, dependent on technology, is far from stable"--… (more)

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