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BOUND TO PLEASE / Most of the periodic table may be right in your pocket

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterThe Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

By David S. Abraham

Yale University Press, 319pp

Indium is a rare metal that you may have never seen, but you have probably looked right through it. When combined with tin, it becomes a transparent electrical conductor that easily sticks to glass. It’s used in everything from smartphone screens to fog-free airplane windows.

As described in “The Elements of Power,” rare metals border on the magical. The original plans for the Eiffel Tower required 7,000 tons of steel, but today a dash of niobium would enable you to build an exact replica with just 2,000 tons. Enhancing one ton of steel with 40 to 100 grams of niobium results in stronger, more quake-resistant buildings, and lighter, more fuel-efficient cars.

Author David S. Abraham, a veteran researcher in the field, likens rare metals to yeast: “While they are only used in small amounts, they’re essential. Without yeast there’s no pizza, and without rare metals there’s no high-tech world.”

At least yeast is abundant. Rare metals are rare. Consider germanium, of which only about 130 tons are produced annually. About 40 tons of that goes into making optical fiber, the physical backbone of the Internet. Some projections of future demand for optical fiber exceed the supply of germanium to make it.

With more common metals, like iron, a reasonable response to growing demand is simply to dig up more of it. But with rare metals things are not so simple. Tellurium, for example, cannot be dug up on its own. Nearly all of it is obtained as a very scant byproduct of copper production. In a recent 10-year period, “tellurium prices increased tenfold, but copper industry production of tellurium stagnated” because massively increasing copper production would have made no economic sense.

Some rare metals are found only in specific geographical sites, giving the owners of those sites considerable monopoly power. For instance, 85 percent of the world’s niobium comes from a single mine in Brazil. Abraham’s interview with the mine owner leaves a mostly favorable impression, but not everyone manages monopolies benevolently.

In 2010, China became angry with Japan over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain who had rammed a pair of Japan Coast Guard ships near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Soon after, Japanese companies found that their orders for rare metals that “were virtually all produced in China” — including neodymium and dysprosium, used in strong permanent magnets for electric motors — were going unfilled.

China never officially acknowledged the embargo, but Abraham writes that it has controlled exports in such a way that rare metals are cheaper and more reliably available inside China than outside. This has prompted some global high-tech companies to set up manufacturing operations in China, an ominous development for those who are concerned about the hollowing-out of industry in countries like Japan.

The book also describes how difficult it is for rare metal mining start-ups to find funding, how rare metal operations harm and help the environment, how American metallurgists (like Japanese farmers) are rapidly aging out of existence, and even how Fujitsu scientist Masato Sagawa invented those strong magnets.

Like an indium-coated airplane window, “The Elements of Power” will give you a clearer view of a vast and fascinating landscape.

Where to Read

Inside any building with solar panels on its roof. You’ll probably have some rare metals right over your head.

Maruzen price: ¥5,527 plus tax (as of Feb. 17, 2016)

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