It has helped make airline travel affordable. It helps keep us safe. And it may just be sexier than Salma Hayek – at least in the eyes of one observer.
We’re talking about Rhenium, yet another metal brought to us largely courtesy of Copper refinement. A silvery white, metallic element, Rhenium, according to USGS, has “an extremely high melting point (3,180 degrees Celsius), and a heat-stable crystalline structure, making it exceptionally resistant to heat and wear.” Thanks to these properties, it has been an indispensible component for superalloys used in turbine blades for jet aircraft engines. As the BBC put it, “[t]he ability of superalloys to operate at such extreme temperatures is what makes your holiday to the Algarve or Florida affordable.”
At an average abundance of less than one part per billion in the continental crust, Rhenium, like its fellow Copper Co-Product is also an extremely rare metal. Global production is pegged at a total of a mere 46 metric tons, with more than 80 percent of that amount going into superalloys.
Its rare metal status is one of the key reasons why recycling rates for Rhenium are increasing. While in the past, scrapped blades used to be sold and recycled in the stainless steel industry, today most of the rare metals contained in the superalloys used in turbine blades are recovered for reuse in manufacturing.
End users have also worked hard on substitution. As the Economist reported a few years ago,
“General Electric, one of the world’s biggest makers of jet engines, has spent years developing nickel-based superalloys to replace rhenium. But the best GE’s boffins could manage was to reduce the amount of metal required, not eliminate it altogether. Moreover, few manufacturers possess the resources to achieve even such limited progress.”
The United States currently imports 79 percent of the Rhenium we use. Because the recovery process is complicated and requires special facilities, we are unlikely to fully meet our demand with domestic resources.
However, a strong demand for Rhenium is likely here to stay. That, coupled with the fact that we have proven Rhenium reserves in the U.S. (the development of one of which has been projected to generate more than 20 tons of Rhenium per year as a Copper Co-Product, thus significantly reducing our reliance on foreign imports), should suffice to get policy makers’ attention — regardless of their stance on Salma Hayek.