The Elements of Power in the Rare-Metal Age

Steve Jobs's other legacy: He reinvented global resource supply lines.

Metal intensive.

Photographer: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu/Getty Images

“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share -- no chance,” Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer told a CEO forum before Steve Jobs released the iPhone in June 2007. 

By the end of the first week of sales, however, most storeroom shelves were bare; Apple and its AT&T partner sold hundreds of thousands of phones. The company was on its way to taking more than 20 percent of the smartphone market within just a few months.

Only eight years later, we forget what a revolution the iPhone was. It became the first mainstream product to rely on a multi-touch glass screen, allowing the tapping, sliding and pinching that are now second nature for writing emails, determining directions and hailing a cab. As Steve Jobs himself said, “It works like magic.”

But in the initial hubbub little attention was paid to the iPhone's most remarkable characteristic. The reason such a powerful device can sit comfortably in the palm of your hand is that it relies on nearly half the elements on the planet.

The magic in Jobs's glass screen was due to a dash of the rare metal indium, which serves as the invisible link, a transparent conductor between the phone and your finger. A dusting of europium and terbium provides brilliant red and green hues on the screen, specks of tantalum regulate power within the phone, and lithium stores the power that makes the phone mobile. Rare metals are also crucial to manufacturing the iPhone’s components: Cerium buffs the glass smooth to the molecular level.

The iPhone was far from the first product to rely on rare metals. But Jobs’s drive for smaller, more powerful gadgets led his company to increasingly harvest the complete palate of materials on the periodic table and deliver them to the masses. 

The iPhone spurred new industries, including mobile apps and tablets, making the power of rare metals indispensable not just in smartphones but in a myriad of new technologies. Jobs not only reinvented the phone; he helped reinvent the world’s resource supply lines.

Rare metals are everywhere -- in couches, camera lenses, computers, earphone buds, bridges and cars. They are rarely used alone or as the primary material. They are like the yeast in pizza. Without that small amount of yeast there’s no pizza; without rare metals there’s no high-tech world.

We lack awareness of them because we never directly buy them as we do other commodities such as gas or corn. Rare metals are buried away in components that are essential to almost every gadget we use, like the rare-earth permanent magnet. While the production of permanent magnets is approximately a mere $15 billion market today, if we were to add together the value of all industries that rely on these magnets -- automobile, medical and military -- the sum would reach trillions of dollars.

Each rare metal has its own characteristics that serve very specific functions. For example, it can be malleable (indium), ductile (niobium), toxic (cadmium), radioactive (thorium) or magnetic (cobalt), or it can melt in your hand (gallium). And like characters in the X-Men comics, they all have their own superpowers. Terbium produces more vibrant light in television; dysprosium and neodymium make incredibly strong magnets possible; antimony helps resist fire.

Among the elements in the periodic table, roughly two-thirds are metals or metalloids, elements like silicon that share some characteristics of metals and nonmetals, and are most valuable because of their semiconducting properties. Mines produce millions of tons each year of the best-known metals, like copper and zinc, which are called “base metals.” Others, like gold and silver, have retained value for centuries, hence their name “precious metals.”

Rare metals are in an umbrella category for almost all other metals. On average, the world consumes individual rare metals in the hundreds or thousands of tons annually -- the annual production of each can fit into just a few rail cars. By comparison, miners produce about 1.4 million tons of copper annually in the U.S. alone.

But the label “rare” does not mean these metals are all geologically scarce. Some of them are. Some are plentiful. Others are abundant but seldom found in concentrations high enough to be mined profitably. Rare metals encompass rare-earth elements, a set of 17 atomically similar metals, which gained international attention in 2010, when fears of China's monopolistic control of production and export restrictions drove prices up nearly tenfold.

While rare-earth elements are a mere subset of rare metals, they share many of the same market dynamics. For example, many rare metals, like rare earths, must undergo challenging refining techniques. They are also traded in backroom deals rather than on open exchanges like other commodities like oil are.

But don’t let the lack of visibility or the small production levels fool you into underestimating their economic and geopolitical importance. As the base of our high-tech, green and military industries, they increasingly deserve the same attention as we afford fossil fuels, meaning that those who control and manage their production and trade will increasingly reap outsized economic and geopolitical fortunes. And because many have unique properties and uses, they cannot be switched out for cheaper or more abundant alternatives.

In the second excerpt from my book, we will see how our reliance on rare metals became a business concern to manufacturers and an economic and a security concern to nations.   

(First of three excerpts from "The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age.") 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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