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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Through the Gateway: Of Pokémon and Co-Products – A Look at Gallium

    All over the world, people are wandering through the streets staring at their smartphones. Whether you’re part of the PokémonGo phenomenon that has taken the world by storm, or whether you can only shake your head, you don’t only have Nintendo to thank for.    One of the Co-Product Metals we’re focusing on this week as part of our “Through the Gateway” campaign plays an important role in allowing you to track down your favorite Pokémon in your neighborhood for hours on end: Gallium.

    The “smart metal”, as USGS has dubbed Gallium, is one of the Periodic Table’s premier social networkers:  it forms compounds with various elements. Among those are Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) and Gallium Nitride (GaN), the strong semiconducting properties of which make them key components of the integrated circuits of smartphones and other wireless communication devices.

    Today, its use as semiconductor compound is Gallium’s major application. CIGS compounds (with CIGS standing for Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide) are also used in solar technology with CIGS photovoltaic panels promising to efficiently capturing sun rays. Gallium is also a component in other optoelectronic devices (LEDs, photodectors) in aerospace applications, consumer goods, industrial equipment and medical equipment.

    While it is an Aluminum co-product, Gallium is significantly less abundant in the earth’s crust than its main Gateway Metal. Many Bauxite deposits which are mined and processed for Aluminum contain small amounts of Gallium, as do Zinc deposits. However, most of the Gallium we use today is derived from the processing of Bauxite Ore.

    In spite of the fact that we are home to significant Aluminum deposits, the United States is 100% reliant on foreign imports to sufficiently supply our domestic manufacturers with the primary Gallium they need.  Meanwhile, researchers from Yale University sounded the alarm last year on several metals used in our favorite gadgets – including Gallium – being at risk of running out globally. One of the researchers’ comments aptly underscores the broader challenge associated with Co-Product metals:

    The metals we’ve been using for a long time probably won’t present much of a challenge, (…) But some metals that have become deployed for technology only in the last 10 or 20 years are available almost entirely as byproducts. (…) You can’t mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes. And they don’t have any decent substitutes.”

    Even though Gallium is generally considered a scarce resource, it is not so much its overall abundance (or lack thereof) that is problematic here.  According to USGS estimates“world resources of gallium in bauxite exceed 1 billion kilograms and that a considerable quantity of gallium could also be present in world zinc resources.” However, – and that is probably the bigger issue  - “[m]ost of the gallium in bauxite resources cannot be considered to be available in the short term, however, because much of the bauxite will not be mined for many decades. Also, only a small percentage of the gallium metal contained in bauxite and zinc ores is economically recoverable using current separation methods. Larger amounts of gallium could be recovered from these ores if more efficient and improved extraction and separation methods are developed in the future.”

    As the Pokémon craze continues, and with demand for electronic gadgetry and advanced technology on the rise, Gallium is definitely a material to watch in its own right.  But the case of Gallium also underscores why we should care about the relationship between Gateway Metals and their Co-Products in the grand scheme of things, as changing supply and demand scenarios or even mining and refining processes for one can affect the other.

     

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  • Through the Gateway: Aluminum Alloys – Versatility On Steroids

    Last year, researchers developed a material “that’s as strong and light as titanium, another expensive material, but at just a tenth of the cost.” They were able to achieve this feat by tweaking Aluminum’s alloying properties at the nano level.

    Aluminum’s properties as a stand-alone metal already make it one of the most versatile materials in engineering and construction, and as engineering database Total Materia notes“a mere recital of its characteristics is impressive.”  It is lightweight, but extremely durable, has a high resistance to corrosion, boasts good electric and thermal conductivity, and reflects both heat and light. It is highly malleable, and can be treated with many different surface finishes.

    Add to that its alloying capabilities, which were first harnessed around 1911, and Aluminum’s versatility soars to new heights. The addition of other metals and minerals, including fellow Gateway Metals Copper and Zinc, but also Iron, Silicon, Magnesium or Manganese, to pure aluminum further enhanced its properties.   Multiple alloys make up America’s “favorite beverage container,” the aluminum can, but that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg – aluminum alloys are used in a wide range of industries today.

    Because of the wide range of alloying options, and with international designations becoming a mess with some countries merely assigning numbers in the order of their development, the uniform International Alloy Designation System (IADS), a designation system previously developed by the Aluminum Association of the United States, became the international standard for Aluminum alloy designation in the 1970s.  Based on this system, Aluminum alloys are assigned a four-digit number of which the first digit represents a general series or class, characterized by its main alloying elements.

    Some of the main categories of Aluminum alloys are “Commercially Pure Aluminum,” “Heat-Treatable Alloys,” and “Non-Heat Treatable Alloys,” but new alloy compositions continue to be developed.  According to the Aluminum Association, which has put together a great series of infographics on Aluminum alloys, the number of registered active compositions has grown to more than 530 from the 75 initially registered at the time of the classification system’s initial inception in 1954.

    AA-Infographic-Alloys-v5

    The development of a Titanium-like iron-aluminum alloy, which ultimately could be used in “everything from bicycles to airplanes” only underscores that Aluminum is more than tin foil and beverage cans. As materials sciences advance, we can expect the number of registered alloys to continue to grow, and we will be able to reap the benefits.

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  • Independence Day – A Time To Celebrate Our Freedom, Yet Be Mindful of Growing Dependencies

    It’s that time of the year again. We’re filling our shopping carts with food and drinks, making sure we have enough gas for the grill, and buying some fireworks. The 4th of July, and with that, Independence Day, has arrived. But our country’s 240th birthday is more than a good reason to throw a barbecue in honor [...]
  • Through The Gateway – We Have the Reserves, So Why Aren’t We A Copper Net Exporter?

    Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken you on a journey “Through the Gateway.” We have looked at some of the key properties and supply and demand picture for Copper, as well as Copper’s co-products Tellurium, Selenium, Rhenium and Molybdenum.* It has become abundantly clear that Copper is a critical mineral, not just as a stand-alone traditional mainstay metal, but also as a gateway to the (mostly) rare tech metals it [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Molybdenum – “The Most Important Element You Yave Never Heard Of?”

    A writer for Gizmodo has dubbed it the “most important element you have never heard of.”  Writes Esther Inglis-Arkell: “Molybdenum, with its 42 protons and 54 neutrons, sits right in the middle of the periodic table being completely ignored. It’s not useless. (…) It just doesn’t have that indefinable sexiness about it.” Inglis-Arkell explains Molybdenum’s biochemical relevance: Taken [...]
  • Through the Gateway: The Copper Gap That Needn’t Be

    Lately, web searches for “Copper” have seemed to turn up stories about the metal’s woes on the global commodity market on a daily basis.  Like many of its hard-rock commodity peers, Copper has seen its price decline over the past five years. However, there is good reason to believe that the self-corrective nature of commodity [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Gateway Metals and the Metals they Unlock Underpin Modern Technology

    Are you reading this post on a smart phone, a laptop or tablet?  Will you scroll down using your finger to swipe the screen?  Safe to say you don’t give much thought to how these functions work — even though they’re often less than a decade old.  That’s the wonder of technology — or rather, [...]
  • As Japan Retreats, US Dozes Off Again On Critical Minerals

    Over the course of the last few months, slumping prices have prompted Japanese companies to reassess their rare metals strategies and cancel cooperative agreements that were once considered a high priority. As Nikkei Asian Review reports, state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC) has cancelled a joint exploration contract for a tungsten mine in [...]
  • Minerals don’t just fuel domestic industries, but also a stronger U.S. trade balance

    ARPN followers are used to our coverage of metals and minerals shortages, and the need to develop more sources of domestic supply.  But the value of U.S.-produced minerals is best evidenced in the ability to meet global needs.  Take borates, one of the relatively few minerals where the U.S. is a net exporter. The issue [...]
  • American Geosciences Institute Webinar on “The Science and Supply of America’s Critical Minerals and Materials”

    Earlier this week, the American Geosciences Institute hosted a webinar entitled “Underpinning Innovation: The Science and Supply of America’s Critical Minerals and Materials.” Speakers for the event, which was co-sponsored by a variety of expert organizations, included: Lawrence D. Meinert, Mineral Resources Program, U.S. Geological Survey; Steven M. Fortier, National Minerals Information Center, U.S. Geological [...]

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