The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth

Prometheus Books, 2015 more...

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
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The majority of high-tech products contain circuits and chips made of rare earth metals. Most people can’t name these rare metals, but modern technology depends upon them. Science writer Keith Veronese’s informative book about the uses of exotic metals – including their political, military, geological and economic impact – covers a fascinating aspect of the future of technology. Veronese includes many little-known facts about geology, topography and rare metals, including their uses as poison and medication. Despite his sometimes distracting, sometimes intriguing, topical meanderings, getAbstract recommends this unusual report to amateur geologists, high-tech industry strategists, investors, entrepreneurs and science junkies.


Scarce Metals

Humans have used metal in some form for more than 6,000 years. Some metals are less common than others, but they all share certain traits. Metals are efficient conductors of electrons, so they are good conduits for electricity and heat. Metals are easy to shape and, except for iron, they don’t deteriorate when exposed to natural forces. Many metals are plentiful, although estimating the quantity of any given metal on Earth is difficult.

Estimates become less reliable when they express the quantity of any metal – particularly precious metals – as “parts per” million or billion, because such expressions offer no comparative benchmarks. For instance, silver is present at 20 parts per billion, meaning that of every billion atoms on Earth, 20 are silver. In contrast, platinum is present in the Earth’s crust in four parts per billion: Thus, four in one billion atoms sampled will be platinum. If you melted down all the platinum extracted from the Earth since the mid-1980s, it wouldn’t fill an average swimming pool. But promethium is even more rare: Scientists first identified this extremely scarce metal in 1963. They estimate that on all the Earth, only a single...

About the Author

Keith Veronese writes for Gawker Media, particularly for its science website, io9.com. He also wrote Plugged In: Comics Professionals Working in the Video Games Industry.

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