Mining And Refining: Tungsten

Our metallurgical history is a little bit like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, only without the paper; we’re always looking for something hard enough to cut whatever the current hardest metal is. We started with copper, the first metal to be mined and refined. But then we needed something to cut copper, so we ended up with alloys like bronze, which demanded harder metals like iron, and eventually this arms race of cutting led us to steel, the king of metals.

But even a king needs someone to keep him in check, and while steel can be used to make tools hard enough to cut itself, there’s something even better for the job: tungsten, or more specifically tungsten carbide. We produced almost 120,000 tonnes of tungsten in 2022, much of which was directed to the manufacture of tungsten carbide tooling. Tungsten has the highest melting point known, 3,422 °C, and is an extremely dense, hard, and tough metal. Its properties make it an indispensible industrial metal, and it’s next up in our “Mining and Refining” series.

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Mining And Refining: Graphite

In my teenage years I worked for a couple of summers at a small amusement park as a ride operator. Looking back on it, the whole experience was a lot of fun, although with the minimum wage at $3.37 an hour and being subjected to the fickle New England weather that ranged from freezing rains to heat stroke-inducing tropical swelter, it didn’t seem like it at the time.

One of my assignments, and the one I remember most fondly, was running the bumper cars. Like everything else in the park, the ride was old and worn out, and maintenance was a daily chore. To keep the sheet steel floor of the track from rusting, every morning we had to brush on a coat of graphite “paint”. It was an impossibly messy job — get the least bit of the greasy silver-black goop on your hands, and it was there for the day. And for the first few runs of the day, before the stuff worked into the floor, the excited guests were as likely as not to get their shoes loaded up with the stuff, and since everyone invariably stepped on the seat of the car before sitting on it… well, let’s just say it was easy to spot who just rode the bumper cars from behind, especially with white shorts on.

The properties that made graphite great for bumper cars — slippery, electrically conductive, tenacious, and cheap — are properties that make it a fit with innumerable industrial processes. The stuff turns up everywhere, and it’s becoming increasingly important as the decarbonization of transportation picks up pace. Graphite is amazingly useful stuff and fairly common, but not all that easy to extract and purify. So let’s take a look at what it takes to mine and refine graphite.

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Mining And Refining: Quartz, Both Natural And Synthetic

So far in this series, pretty much every material we’ve covered has had to undergo a significant industrial process to transform it from its natural state to a more useful product. Whether it’s the transformation of bauxite from reddish-brown clay to lustrous aluminum ingots, or squeezing solid sulfur out of oil and natural gas, there haven’t been many examples of commercially useful materials that are taken from the Earth and used in their natural state.

Quartz, though, is at least a partial exception to this rule. Once its unusual electrical properties were understood, crystalline quartz was sent directly from quarries and mines to factories, where they were turned into piezoelectric devices with no chemical transformation whatsoever. The magic of crystal formation had already been done by natural processes; all that was needed was a little slicing and dicing.

As it turns out, though, quartz is so immensely useful for a technological society that there’s no way for the supply of naturally formed crystals to match demand. Like copper before it, which was first discovered in natural metallic deposits that could be fashioned into tools and decorations more or less directly, we would need to discover different sources for quartz and invent chemical transformations to create our own crystals, taking cues from Mother Nature’s recipe book on the way.

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Mining And Refining: Cobalt, The Unfortunately Necessary Metal

The story of humankind is largely a tale of conflict, often brought about by the uneven distribution of resources. For as long as we’ve been down out of the trees, and probably considerably before that too, our ancestors have been struggling to get what they need to survive, as often as not at the expense of another, more fortunate tribe. Food, water, land, it doesn’t matter; if They have it and We don’t, chances are good that there’s going to be a fight.

Few resources are as unevenly distributed across our planet as cobalt is. The metal makes up only a fraction of a percent of the Earth’s crust, and commercially significant concentrations are few and far between, enough so that those who have some often end up at odds with those who need it. And need it we do; what started in antiquity as mainly a rich blue pigment for glass and ceramics has become essential for important industrial alloys, high-power magnets, and the anodes of lithium batteries, among other uses.

Getting access to our limited supply of cobalt and refining it into a useful metal isn’t a trivial process, and unfortunately its outsized importance to technological society forces it into a geopolitical role that has done a lot to add to human misery. Luckily, market forces and new technology are making once-marginal sources viable, which just may help us get the cobalt we need without all the conflict.

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Mining And Refining: Sulfur

When you think of the periodic table, some elements just have a vibe to them that’s completely unscientific, but nonetheless undeniable. Precious metals like gold and silver are obvious examples, associated as they always have been with the wealth of kings. Copper and iron are sturdy working-class metals, each worthy of having entire ages of human industry named after them, with silicon now forming the backbone of our current Information Age. Carbon builds up the chemistry of life itself and fuels almost all human endeavors, and none of us would get very far without oxygen.

But what about sulfur? Nobody seems to think much about poor sulfur, and when they do it tends to be derogatory. Sulfur puts the stink in rotten eggs, threatens us when it spews from the mouths of volcanoes, and can become a deadly threat when used to make gunpowder. Sulfur seems like something more associated with the noxious processes and bleak factories of the early Industrial Revolution, not a component of our modern, high-technology world.

And yet despite its malodorous and low-tech reputation, there are actually few industrial processes that don’t depend on massive amounts of sulfur in some way. Sulfur is a critical ingredient in processes that form the foundation of almost all industry, so its production is usually a matter of national and economic security, which is odd considering that nearly all the sulfur we use is recovered from the waste of other industrial processes.

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Mining And Refining: Helium

With a seemingly endless list of shortages of basic items trotted across newsfeeds on a daily basis, you’d be pardoned for not noticing any one shortage in particular. But in among the shortages of everything from eggs to fertilizers to sriracha sauce has been a growing realization that we may actually be running out of something so fundamental that it could have repercussions that will be felt across all aspects of our technological society: helium.

The degree to which helium is central to almost every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. Helium’s unique properties, like the fact that it remains liquid at just a few degrees above absolute zero, contribute to its use in countless industrial processes. From leak detection and welding to silicon wafer production and cooling the superconducting magnets that make magnetic resonance imaging possible, helium has become entrenched in technology in a way that belies its relative scarcity.

But where does helium come from? As we’ll see, the second lightest element on the periodic table is not easy to come by, and considerable effort goes into extracting and purifying it enough for industrial use. While great strides are being made toward improved methods of extraction and the discovery of new deposits, for all practical purposes helium is a non-renewable resource for which there are no substitutes. So it pays to know a thing or two about how we get our hands on it.

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Mining And Refining: Lithium, Powering The Future With Brine

Many years ago, I read an article about the new hotness: lithium batteries. The author opened with what he no doubt thought was a clever pop culture reference by saying that the mere mention of lithium would “strike fear in the hearts of Klingons.” It was a weak reference to the fictional “dilithium crystals” of Star Trek fame, and even then I found it a bit cheesy, but I guess he had to lead with something.

Decades later, a deeper understanding of the lore makes it clear that a Klingon’s only fear is death with dishonor, but there is a species here on earth that lives in dread of lithium: CEOs of electric vehicle manufacturing concerns. For them, it’s not the presence of lithium that strikes fear, but the relative absence of it; while it’s the 25th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and gigatons are dissolved into the oceans of the world, lithium is very reactive and thus tends to be diffuse, making it difficult to obtain concentrated in the quantities their businesses depend on.

As the electric vehicle and renewable energy markets continue to grow, the need for lithium to manufacture batteries will grow with it, potentially to the point where demand outstrips the mining industry’s production capability. To understand how that imbalance may be possible, we’ll take a look at how lithium is currently mined, as well as examine some new mining techniques that may help fill the coming lithium gap.

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