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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, the reason that, given the pace of technological change, we typically don’t wonder much about the inner-workings of how our gadgets do what they do.

But as ARPN followers know, it’s not magic.  Our advances grow out of the revolution in materials science that is powering the technology age.

In an article in The New Scientist, James Mitchell Crow observed:

We rarely stop to think of the advances in materials that underlie our material advances. Yet almost all our personal gadgets and technological innovations have something in common: they rely on some extremely unfamiliar materials from the nether reaches of the periodic table. Even if you have never heard of the likes of hafnium, erbium or tantalum, chances are there is some not too far from where you are sitting.”

The article may be a few years old, but Crow’s premise is as relevant today as it was then:

From indium touchscreens to hafnium-equipped moonships, the nether regions of the periodic table underpin modern technology – but supplies are getting scarce.”

Take Tellurium, for example. One of the least common elements on Earth, according to the USGS, it is essential to photovoltaic solar cells. The challenge, however, is that despite its importance, Tellurium is not mined in its own right – it is largely a by- or (as we will explain later), more appropriately a co-product of refining Copper and, to a lesser extent, Lead and Gold.

A similar scenario unfolds for many other tech metals critical to innovation today.

As we have argued in our 2012 report “Through the Gateway: Gateway Metals and the Foundations of American Technology,” many of them are “unlocked” by five “gateway metals” – Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Tin and Zinc.

Copper ore refining yields access to Molybdenum, Rhenium, Selenium, Tellurium, along with small amounts of REEs. Zinc ore is a gateway to Indium, Germanium and Cadmium. Aluminum processing unlocks Gallium and Vanadium. Tin also provides access to Indium and Vanadium while Nickel is a gateway to Cobalt, Palladium, Rhodium and Scandium.

When cross-referenced with the 2012 ARPN Risk Pyramid — which graphically weighted and segmented the 46 minerals and metals most cited in a series of reports on the national security applications of strategic materials — and we surveyed and analyzed our degrees of mineral resource dependence, we get the following picture:

The five gateway metals we focused on – Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Tin and Zinc—may only represent only 10% of the Risk Pyramid, but, when counting all Rare Earths individually, they unlock 25 of the remaining 41 metals, accounting, all told, for 60% of the whole Risk Pyramid.

In light of these staggering numbers and the increasing importance of said tech metals to our daily lives and future innovation, we will be taking a closer look at the individual gateway metals and their co-product metals in the coming months –  so, once again, join us, as we take another in-depth look “Through the Gateway.”