Welcome to the History of the Earth podcast where we discuss all things geological. I’m your host, geologist Dick Gibson. There’s been a long hiatus in my production of this podcast, and I hope to rectify that with some new episodes. Today’s topic for Episode 376 is U.S. mineral dependency.
It’s a common misconception, perhaps an expression of “American exceptionalism,” that the United States is self-sufficient in most or all of the mineral commodities we use in our stuff every day. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In my book, What Things Are Made Of, published in 2011, I documented the uses for everything from arsenic to uranium, and where the U.S. gets its supply of each. At that time the U.S. was self-sufficient, a net exporter, of only 19 of the eighty-plus commodities the U.S. Geological Survey tracks. Today, in 2017 the situation is no better – the count is down to 15 items for which the U.S. is a net exporter.
Some of those items are low-value but interesting things like boron, kyanite, and diatomite. Only three, gold, iron ore, and molybdenum, are high-value metals.
A lot of the mineral commodities we import are obscure, but the vast majority of technologically active Americans use them every day. For example, indium, critical to making flat-panel displays for televisions and computers, is all imported, mostly from Canada and China. Zinc is a well-known metal used mostly in galvanizing iron to prevent rust and in brass and bronze for everything from door knobs to saxophones. In the U.S., 82% of it is imported, mostly from Canada and Mexico.
What about that vital bomb-making element, uranium? Hardly any is used to make bombs in the United States any more, but it helps generate electricity in 61 commercial nuclear power plants across the nation, and almost 20% of our electricity comes from nuclear plants. Where does that uranium come from? Only about 4% of it is mined in the United States. The rest is imported, with Canada and Kazakhstan providing close to half, and Russia, Australia, and Namibia supplying most of the rest.
How about something as common as a flashlight battery? Dry-cell batteries are made with zinc, carbon, and a pasty electrolyte of ammonium chloride and manganese dioxide. All the manganese used in the U.S. is imported, with more than two-thirds of the manganese ore we use coming from Gabon in Central Africa. By far most of the nearly 700,000 tons of manganese the U.S. consumes goes to steel alloys, where it helps make the steel resistant to abrasion and stronger in impacts. That makes it a common alloy in bicycle frames and mining tools.
Or consider common salt. Even though there are 64 plants in 16 states, with Kansas leading the way in production, the United States still imports about a quarter of all the salt we use. About half the salt consumed goes to highway deicing, but a third or so is used to make a wide variety of chemicals, including plastics like polyvinyl chloride or PVC. Food processing and common table salt amount to just 3% of the salt used in the U.S. Chile is the largest source for salt imports, with Canada and Mexico second and third.
The point of my book What Things Are Made Of and this brief set of examples is simply to help you recognize the profound level of globalization that exists in everyday products Americans use.
Thanks for listening, and I hope you’ll join us next time for another episode of the History of the Earth.
—Richard I. Gibson