Magnesium: Where It Comes From And Why We’re Running Out

Okay, we’re not running out. We actually have tons of the stuff. But there is a global supply chain crisis. Most of the world’s magnesium is processed in China and several months ago, they just… stopped. In an effort to hit energy consumption quotas, the government of the city of Yulin (where most of the country’s magnesium production takes place) ordered 70% of the smelters to shut down entirely, and the remainder to slash their output by 50%. So, while magnesium remains one of the most abundant elements on the planet, we’re readily running out of processed metal that we can use in manufacturing.

Nikon camera body
The magnesium-alloy body of a Nikon d850. Courtesy of Nikon

But, how do we actually use magnesium in manufacturing anyway? Well, some things are just made from it. It can be mixed with other elements to be made into strong, lightweight alloys that are readily machined and cast. These alloys make up all manner of stuff from race car wheels to camera bodies (and the chassis of the laptop I’m typing this article on). These more direct uses aside, there’s another, larger draw for magnesium that isn’t immediately apparent: aluminum production.

But wait, aluminum, like magnesium is an element. So why would we need magnesium to make it? Rest assured, there’s no alchemy involved- just alloying. Much like magnesium, aluminum is rarely used in its raw form — it’s mixed with other elements to give it desirable properties such as high strength, ductility, toughness, etc. And, as you may have already guessed, most of these alloys require magnesium. Now we’re beginning to paint a larger, scarier picture (and we just missed Halloween!) — a disruption to the world’s aluminum supply.

Where Magnesium Comes From

A nice chunk of crystalized magnesium. Courtesy of CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before we get into all the gloom and doom, let’s start with a look at where we actually get Magnesium from. We’ve already established that we can’t just pull a chunk of it out of the ground and throw it on a CNC, but what happened to it on its journey from the dirt to the body of my camera?

Well, first off, its journey doesn’t always start in the dirt. Some of it comes from the ocean. It turns out that sea salt brine is a great source of magnesium chloride. To extract the magnesium, water is evaporated to form magnesium chloride anhydrous, which as you may have guessed is just a fancy term for, well, dry magnesium chloride. It’s then heated until it melts and electric current is passed through the molten salt, ripping the magnesium and chlorine ions apart. I think we need to pause a moment here to consider how *ahem* metal this sounds — electrocuting lava to break it down into metallic magnesium and gaseous chlorine!

Magnesium can also be extracted from Magnesite (mostly found in Russia, North Korea, and China) and Dolomite (found worldwide, and commonly mined in the US, Canada, and Switzerland, among other nations) ore. The ores are mined, and then crushed into dust and heated before being mixed with seawater. This separates out magnesium hydroxide from the rest of the bits of rock. The magnesium hydroxide can be heated along with some chlorine to yield magnesium chloride, and that can be processed with the seawater method above.

The last method we’ll discuss is the least efficient, and ironically, the most commonly used. Known as the Pidgeon Process and named after it’s inventor, Dr. Lloyd Pidgeon, the process consumes more energy and requires more manual labor to produce the same mass of magnesium as the others. It’s the dominant process used for magnesium production in China, where energy and labor are both cheap. It involves the reduction (time to think back to those redox reactions from chemistry class) of calcined dolomite pellets in a furnace under a vacuum. Eventually, metallic magnesium begins to crystalize, and can subsequently be melted down into an ingot. This process generally requires workers to manually empty and refill the magnesium tanks at the end of each cycle (which lasts approximately eleven hours).

Metal Mix-Ins

Now that we’ve got our piping-hot magnesium ingot, let’s take a moment to talk about alloys a bit more in-depth. An alloy is a solution of different elements, usually mixed together while molten and allowed to cool into bars of the metals we know and love. Almost all metals we use in engineering are alloys; it’s exceedingly rare to use one in its pure elemental form. The only two examples that come to mind immediately are copper (which is sometimes used in its elemental form for electrical and thermal conductors) and titanium, which can be sold and used in sheets and bars as “CP” or Commercially Pure. In most cases though, we want to add a little something special to help give the metal desired properties.

Aluminum Micrograph
A micrograph of precipitates (dark regions) in an aluminum-copper alloy. Courtesy of University of Cambridge

There are a ton of magnesium alloys out there, and I’m not going to bore you by just listing them all, but we can at least talk about a few of the common metals added to form them (known as alloying elements). Aluminum zirconium, zinc, and thorium are common mix-ins. They allow the alloy to be precipitation hardened — a heat treating process that forms microscopic regions called precipitates that impede the motion of metal grains, effectively making the whole piece of metal harder. Other common alloying elements are tin (which makes the magnesium more castable) and manganese (which can improve resistance to corrosion, something that magnesium is very susceptible to).

When magnesium is added to aluminum, it improves the strength of the material. This allows engineers to design lightweight, high-strength parts. In fact, almost all common aluminum alloys contain magnesium — and it’s a must for alloys favored by the automotive and aerospace industries.

Supply Chain Woes

We’ve established just how much we need magnesium, so what happens when we can’t get it? If the factories in China stay shut down for much longer, that’s a reality we may be facing. Auto makers will do what they can to get their hands on suitable aluminum, but there may not be enough to go around and some experts believe that this could cause car assembly lines to grind to a halt until the upstream supply chain is back in order.

It isn’t only cars that would be in short supply. Consumer electronics production could suffer as well (as if the global chip shortage wasn’t already enough). The ramifications will be far-reaching and you’re likely to feel them even if you aren’t planning on buying a new car or laptop next year. Magnesium and aluminum prices have been increasing, and even smaller fabrication shops have started stocking up on materials that they worry won’t be available in a few months. It may be a good time to think about alternatives for that machined aluminum enclosure you were going to design for your latest project.

93 thoughts on “Magnesium: Where It Comes From And Why We’re Running Out

    1. The amount of sarcasm necessary to reply to this comment is as this study concludes: currently unachievable. We however do see great potential in this feild: research into improvements in the efficient and sustainable production of HSC (highly sarcastic comment s) is recommended.

    2. Sustainability isn’t only about whether the product is hazardous or whatever. The sustainability part of solar is that yes it involves some not so friendly parts but for the amount of power it produces, it IS the most cost effective (current tech) as per output/hrs., steady state, it’s far cheaper to produce solar panels then wind turbines which are unstable as far as output and maintenance. Solar panels are generally expected to last 25 yrs with virtually no maintenance aside from cleaning the glass fronts and insuring electrical connects are good. Wind turbines are a constant mechanical head ache, I know from working on large scale systems. They are extremely complex with the controller systems along with the mechanical systems. Wind turbines do pose a problem with birds. Large scale solar systems such as found in areas like in the desert of south central Calif also cause bird loses, called streamers as the birds fly through the solar concentration field and ignite. Suns rays are focused on a boiler mounted on a tower which turns white hot during the day. It’s like looking at the sun without eye protection. I used to drive trucks by the power plant on I-40 and could see it. Anyhow back to solar sust., the issue is that once the panels are produced they produce without any further pollution issues until it becomes necessary to recycle them. All other methods of producing power problems 24/7/365. Be it carbon emissions or environmental issues from silt collection in Hydro impoundments along with affecting the natural cycles of the river eco systems. Nuclear is something we all should already know about and MAN that is a NO WIN situation in the end ! It’s a man made system that will fail, the issue is when and how bad will it be? At least carbon in the atmosphere will eventually go away, carbon in the atmosphere in time will at least be returned to coal beds, 100k years ago the carbon content in the atmosphere was 10k times higher than it is now and the Earth has never been as green since, but Nuclear waste, NO WAY ! That will be a problem for the next 20k yrs or more. There is really only one solution to the power issue and it’s found in distributed generation systems, where small scale is wide spread and under the control of private citizens if people are capable and if not, contract maint. out to firms that can do the jobs. Combine these systems with large scale production while developing storage tech to work thru low to non producing periods and get away from carbon based production and consumption methods. In the end it comes down to building a world that makes the most of efficiency unlike how it is mentioned in this article, about producing Magnesium in the least efficient methods mentioned. Engineer power consuming products to consume much less power.

      1. If you expect people to take your rant seriously, at least say sensible things, and don’t pick numbers that are impossible and blatantly made up.
        “100k years ago the carbon content in the atmosphere was 10k times higher than it is now ” is total BS. 400 ppm (the current concentration) times 10k is 400%. Neat trick.

        Around 2-3 BILLION years ago (not 100k), those pesky photosynthetic organisms murdered most of the precursor life on earth with all the oxygen they generated, dropping CO2 concentration from about 1000 times its current value (not 10k times) .

      2. Nuclear power puts out roughly 4 grams of CO2 per kWh produced and it’s more or less the same wherever you build it.

        Solar power averages 6 grams (3 – 21 g from best to worst location)

        The difference comes from the fact that nuclear power uses so much less steel, concrete, glass, land, water… etc. because the power density is like a billion times greater.

        1. The study you got those numbers from ( https://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41560-017-0032-9 ) is highly speculative. Its numbers are based in an imagined “2050” world and assume mostly renewable electric energy used for mining (including vehicles) and manufacturing, as well as 90% effective carbon capture.
          If this scenario came about, 100% solar would be a 55-fold reduction on current CO2 emissions, equivalent to Net 1.8%, 100% nuclear would be Net 2.7%. Both are near enough to be a fantastic outcome.
          Based on calculations on numbers from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_supply_and_consumption and https://www.co2.earth/global-co2-emissions

      3. Nuclear fear mongering is all I got out of this. Newer reactor *ARE* safer reactors, but fear mongering has prevented the construction of new nuclear facilities, and held back the development of more efficient technologies that deplete even less refined material than older reactors.

    3. Auto wheels can be mnade of steel again which I much prefer. Tires would be easier to change again as rim damage from that and from rubbing against curbs while parking would no longer be a concern.

  1. “It may be a good time to think about alternatives for that machined aluminum enclosure you were going to design for your latest project.”

    Meh.

    I have my backyard foundry, 1/2 of a broken, aluminum step-ladder and all the parts for a CNC mill just waiting to be assembled.

    I also have a busy intersection almost adjacent to my backyard where the drunks leave lots of car parts behind when they hit each other and/or the electrical poles. Some of that is probably aluminum. There’s lots of ABS too. I should get or build a filament extruder.

    Bring on the shortage! Show me what you’ve got!

    1. This just in, A world wide shortage of Alcohol has urged many lazeabouts to
      get off their asses and do home improvements. This has led to mass shortages
      of tools, nails, lumber, stepladders, car parts, and paint.

      1. Well, low interest rates, such as for housing construction and home improvements, have already lead to shortages of

        “tools, nails, lumber, stepladders, xxx xxxxx, and paint” in the USA.
        (tongue in cheek)

      1. Ya know… everyone seems to have better luck than me. Every time i try to start some bulk magnesium on fire i always end up with some lightly toasted magnesium and disappointment. How are you all doing this, just once i’d like to start a nice metal fire going.

        1. There is flammable, and then there is need for special chemicals to control a fire.

          You CAN extinguish a wood fire with common or garden water!

          If you try and put out a burning magnesium fire with water, it gets much hotter and burns faster. The molten magnesium strips the Hydroxide from the water which produces hydrogen which also burns!

  2. Energy crisis alright. China is throwing its weight around after being “insulted” by Australia, refuses to import coal and makes up energy quotas to have an excuse to stop production of crucial exports to the world market.

    They could open up factories tomorrow, but they won’t. It’s time to slaughter a pig.

  3. Perhaps China’s doing this in order to, uh, persuade other countries to cut it some slack on CO2 limits.

    Basically, “If you want us to do much of your manufacturing for you, you’re going to have to let us emit more CO2.”

    1. Beryllium – a fantastic heat conductor and used to control cooling times in molds. Lithium (used industrially and in the lab to dry all the moisture out of gasses, and please exercise utmost care if you). Radium, Americium, and all their friends in all sorts of places. Thorium in sputter-ion applications for electrodes – does this count as an alloy? Uranium. Plutonium is a party looking for a place to happen.

      I’m not just being a jerk here – there’s tons of fun stuff out there.

      1. “I’m not just being a jerk here – there’s tons of fun stuff out there.”

        Hackaday attracts a number of jerks, including yours truly.
        Sometimes a new jerk is a nice change of pace.
        B^)

      2. Isn’t Hydrogen a metal?

        But the most elementally-versatile substance must be carbon, carbon, carbon, carbon and carbon. Oh, and carbon.
        Graphene, diamond, graphite, amorphous, buckyballs, activated charcoal.

  4. Maybe a stupid question, but i didn’t find a satisfactory answer online for the bottom hacker ^^°

    How can you test some scrap metal at home to see what is the base metal.

    I have some old part from ols computers (think casings from 8inch disk readers :) )

    I don’t think they are aluminium, nut i don’t have a easy way to test it non destructively :p

    1. Well, you don’t mention your budget, but if you brought a XRF analyzer home you could test some scrap metal at home to see what is the base metal.

      It’s certainly an easy way to test it nondestructively.

    2. Well it’s destructive but only slightly so. You can burn a little scraping of the material in question and let the light pass through a diffusion filter and onto a white wall. Take a picture and start measuring which spectrum lines you got. Not a perfect way to do it but it works really well if you just want a general idea of what’s in it.

    3. Since you mention reader I’m going to guess one of three metals (it could be others)
      Zinc (cheap, relatively low melting point, high precision die cast or can be injection moulded)
      Mu-metal (expensive, very high permeability, used to block magnetic fields)
      steel (common depending on how old the hardware is) – check will a magnet stick ?

      1. If you have a lot of experience with various metals, mostly have different thermal conduction rates. So touching them with your finger can sometimes help you guess the metal or alloy, or at the least help eliminate some metals that it is not.

      2. I’d guess that large castings from an 8 inch floppy drive would be aluminum or zinc. Mu metal is inappropriate and usually comes in sheets, not castings. Steel would be bad because it might become magnetized. If you can scrape a shard off an edge with a pocket knife, it’s not steel.

    4. Looking at all the answers above and… gah!

      Weigh it in air and weigh it in water, determine the density, then look up the metal with that density.

      Or weigh it, estimate the volume (good for blocks, ingots, and sheets), calculate the density, and look up the metal with that density.

  5. Buy less stuff? Perhaps leaving the resources for more important equiptment, like health and food industries. Granted, manufacturers would have to be on board to make less of a Profit, build stuff a smidge better, maybe even make electronics not so easily outdated by software. Not seeing this shortage as bad, uncomfortable, maybe, bad….nope.

  6. The problem with Capitalism is eventually you run out of externalities to exploit.
    It may be slave or undocumented labor, it may be rivers or an atmosphere you can dump your waste into, it may be products that are addictive or contract law that prevents lawsuits, but the easiest, surest way to make money is to find a way to damage one person and sell the results at a profit to another.

    This touches the article here in a simple way. Magnesium is currently made in a wasteful, polluting manner predominantly because, in China, fossil fuel energy is artificially cheap, as is labor, and mining regulations are non-existent. Therefor these producers can undercut other producers and use the same artificially cheap energy to ship their products around the world and create an artificial monopoly. If energy prices included the price of preventing climate catastrophe the price of the Chinese Mg would rise to the point where smaller plants using more efficient process could compete in regional markets.

    Fossil fuels are a textbook case, not only was their growth enabled by favorable government deals and tax loopholes(externalizing the cost of production to taxpayers), but it turns out the waste products cause cancer, acid rain, and global climate catastrophe. The result of fossil fuels unnatural abundance( and some other exploitative maneuvers such as sweatshops and resource theft) has been an economy where plastic doodads worth pennies apiece are manufactured by people who have no use for them and shipped around the world to be thrown away.

    The current global supply chain disaster is the result of a similar fixation on profitability over any other concern, in that case resilience. We built a supply chain so efficient it had no unused haulers and almost nothing in storage. As long as everything flowed as expected it worked fine and squeezed every available Nickle into somebody’s pocket.
    But as soon as it stalled, it became hellishly hard to restart. Ships wait off shore for trucks, but trucks can’t run because they need tires, but the tires are on the ships. Cargo needs containers, but the containers sit in parking lots because there is no room for their contents in the warehouses, because the customers can’t use the warehoused products without access to the other products, which are on the docks in China waiting for containers. The brittleness of the supply chain is an externality of it’s efficiency. Now the bill has come due.

      1. BUZZZ! Wrong answer! I am, as much as anything a Distributist, read “The Servile State” and “The Outline of Sanity” by Chesterton. Or try Anarcho-Syndicalism for a more secular take on things. And I certainly hope the world moves on from it’s current late stage capitalism, if not I don’t see a future for western civilization. As for the idea that communism is the source of the problem, it would be an interesting argument if Russia and China were Communists, but if you believe that, they have a bridge they would like to sell you. And yes, the supply chain will get better, but the whole problem exists because of the pursuit of corporate profit without regard to externalized costs. That is my point.

        1. Well, I enjoy Chesterton and like his proposal of Distributism, but slamming opposing ideas does not build up one’s own case.

          “The wisest saying I’ve ever found,
          is ‘He who throws mud,
          loses ground.'”

          1. If you read Chesterton you would know he spends a lot of time mocking his opponents. I may be a touch more direct, but I attack the system, not it’s followers.

          1. You try suing a large corporation for damaging the environment and let me know how that works out. Normally they just buy a few legislators and get whatever it is leagalized, but failing that you just spend years in court, and if you are lucky get a payout which is a tiny percent of the profit they made by dumping whatever.

    1. Although capitalism is not really good, it is much, much better than it’s “competitors” like communism. The latter already showed, it is one of the worst economic systems.

      1. By that measure the British monarchy is the best governing system in the world, as it is the longest lived. Anyway, Soviet/Chinese communism is less an economic system than a governmental one, the word you are looking for is “socialism” which has been paired with lots of governing systems in various mixtures with capitalism, and in general makes it into less of an economic deathmatch. But as I said, I am a Distrbutist/Syndicalist, not a communist so BOO!

      1. Well civilization considerably predates fossil fuel use, so you are obviously in no place to complain about silly rants. Also, if there were never draft horses we would never have had much in the way of land transport, but that is no reason for us to be wading around in manure today. When technology improves, we need to move on. Denying the cost(or existence) of externalities inhibits that process.

  7. Don’t panic! China has announce they are solving this problem and undoing any efforts this week in Glasgow at the same time. They are increasing coal production by an amount greater than burned in all of the EU per year. This is because the expanding cities and manufacturing are short of electric power.

    Not only will the refining pick up again, but for a bonus you can just forget about climate as an issue.

    1. (OT) I was reading an article last night about how China’s economy is shaky (vis-a-vis the Evergrande scandal).
      But the State is stepping in and forcing other corporations to all pitch in to bail it out, (maybe something they’ve learned from Lehman).

  8. Radionucleides come from the ground, they’re concentrated, then used as fuel Then they can be returned to the ground in smaller amounts and with smaller volumes than when they were originally in the ground, or they can be put into special storage facilities for possible future use in newer energy technologies. In other words, using nuclear energy reduces the severity of radioactive soil pollution.

  9. I know very little, so don’t shoot me for this question.

    Electronic component shortage. Magnesium Shortage.
    What to do with all those electronic things people toss?

    How long before it becomes economically viable to really recycle old electronics & scrap? Actually completely disassemble & then test individual components to determine which can be reused and which to break down for raw materials.

    How long before it becomes economically viable to mine dump sites?

    1. Not mining, but some landfills from the 1970s are supplying some methane gas for heating/generation.

      Will it ever be economically “viable” to recover components from every little circuit board that has found its way into our lives (cars, homes, businesses)? I have my doubts. Though, I do wish they were all made with the ability to reload software/firmware (for everyone, not just those who are NDA). I believe it would make more things repairable, and upgradeable, delaying their trip to the junkyards. But, those things are so cheap to manufacture, it doesn’t make economical sense to repair/upgrade most of those circuit boards. It goes back to when a VCR was built for $5, why would anyone (manufacturer or customer) spend money repairing one? And because, there was very little “sense” in repairing one, it didn’t make “sense” to make schematics, part #’s, available, and costs were further lowered by not including provisions for repair (technician training, or test points or connections (e.g. JTAG, SPI) on the circuit boards.
      It was/is cheaper to just put the “raw” silicon chip on the PCB, wirebond or filp chip it, squirt on a black blob of epoxy.

      When I graduated from High School, I decided between 2 careers that appealed to me, automotive repair, or electronics repair. I chose electronics repair. Little did I know (who did?) that electronics would soon become disposable, eliminating the need for (most) electronic techs. So, at halftime, I went back to school to learn computer systems. But, they too became (mostly) disposable. So, I went back to school to learn Computer Information Systems. The day I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree, the local IBM laid off 129 people. I didn’t foresee that a lot of programming jobs would be outsourced to other countries.

      If I had chosen automobile repair, I probably would have had steady work my entire adult life.

      1. I’ve recently finished listening to Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics” on CD during my daily commute.
        It was so depressing! It seems as if governments (esp. USA) have chosen the worst economic policies over the past 70 years! I wish for, but see no end in sight, for true economic recovery. Most current economic policies do not look for the long term consequences that will occur. Just as in ecology, financial programs are stealing from future generations.

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