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 up by plants from the soil, molybdenum “forms a crucial part of a little enzyme called sulfite oxidase. The enzyme breaks down incoming sulfites and turns them into useful food. Take away molybdenum, and the enzyme, and things get nasty. The lowest-level problem you can look forward to is a severe allergic reaction. Continued molybdenum deprivation causes uric acid to build up in the blood, which brings on horribly inflamed and painful joints. At it worst, molybdenum deficiency takes out the nervous system.”
Definitely not good.
But there’s more to it. Like Rhenium, Molybdenum is essential for creating high-performance alloys used in jet turbines and other defense systems. It is also a critical component of alloyed materials used in water distribution systems, food handling and chemical processing equipment, automotive parts, gas transmission pipes, and heavy construction. As USGS has noted, “Without molybdenum as an alloying metal, the superstrength steel used in heavy construction (such as in skyscrapers and bridges) would be more costly; in some instances, the increased weight of alternative materials with equivalent strengths would render construction unmanageable or even impossible.”
The question of whether or not it is “the most important you’ve never heard of,” aside – Molybdenum’s importance cannot be dismissed. Luckily, the United States is in a good spot with regards to availability to meet domestic needs.
In fact, as Molybdenum, unlike its previously discussed Copper co-product peers, is actually a metal of which we are a net exporter, industry continues to seek to develop materials that could benefit from its hardening, strengthening and anti-corrosive properties. The advent of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is just one example here.
While we are fortunate to have an abundance of Molybdenum beneath our own soil, one should note that while there is some primary Molybdenum production, including at two mines in the United States, most of the Molybdenum we use is produced as a Copper co-product. Thus, we should keep Molybdenum on our supply and demand radar, particularly as advances in materials science may increase demand. As USGS points out:
“Short- to medium-term changes in copper prices can influence the availability of molybdenum. For example, copper mining activity may drop suddenly in response to reduced metal prices, which in turn reduces the total amount of molybdenum that is produced. Although primary molybdenum mines can fill this market gap between byproduct production and overall demand, they have a limited ability to increase their production rate to meet spikes in demand.”