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Pizza, the Age of Rare Metals and Co-Products

“If you don’t have yeast, you don’t have pizza.”

What may seem like a random – albeit logical – conclusion has more to do with critical minerals than you may think.  David Abraham, director of the Technology, Rare and Electronic Materials Center, recently used the yeast/pizza analogy to exemplify the importance of rare metals, which are produced and used in very small amounts, but are indispensable components of certain high-tech goods.  As he put it in his interview with the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, you only need very little yeast, but without it, you won’t have a decent pizza – and “(i)f you don’t have neodymium, then you don’t have a speaker for your phone.”

What is important to note, is that many of these rare or tech metals are not mined as stand-alone metals. Says Abraham: 

“When I was growing up, when I would think about metals, I would think someone was going out West in the 1840s and they were digging and they were trying to find gold, and they would find these little nuggets in the ground. But tellurium and selenium and many other rare metals are not mined for themselves; they are often a byproduct of producing a larger metal, like zinc or copper. And that is an important thing to understand.”

American Resources followers may remember the concept of “byproduct” metals in the context of our “Gateway Metals and the Foundations of American Technology” report. In our 2012 study, we focused on a group of five such “gateway” metals, which are not only critical to manufacturing in their own right, but “unlock” tech metals increasingly indispensible to innovation and development.

Because of the growing significance of these metals and minerals, we will be taking a deeper look at the five gateway metals we covered in the report – aluminum, copper, nickel, tin and zinc, as well as the tech metals they unlock – on our blog over the coming months.  In doing so, we plan to zero in on some of the cutting edge uses for these tech metals, as well as supply and other issues surrounding them.

And resource wonks spoiler-alert:  We’re going to argue that it’s time to upgrade our vocabulary when it comes to these indispensable metals — it’s time to scrap the by-products label, and recognize these materials as co-products critical to 21st Century life.

Join us, as we take another in-depth look “Through the Gateway.”