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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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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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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It’s hard to reckon exactly when in history humans became a technological species. Part of that is because the definition of technology is somewhat subjective; if you think making a stick pointy enough to grub roots from the dirt or to poke enough holes in an animal to convince it to let you eat it is technology, then our engineered world goes back a long, long way indeed.
But something about pointy sticks just doesn’t seem transformative enough, in the sense of fundamentally changing a naturally occurring material, to really count as a technological line in the sand. To cross that line, it really seems like the use of metals should be part of the package. Even if that’s the case, our technological history still goes pretty far back. And copper ends up being one of the metals that started it all, about 11,000 years ago, when our ancestors discovered natural deposits of the soft, reddish metal and began learning how to fashion it into the tools and implements that lifted us out of the Stone Age.
Our world literally cannot run without copper, forming as it does not only the electric-motor muscles of civilization, but also the wires and cables that form the power and data grids that stitch us together. Ironically, we are just as dependent on copper now as we were when it was the only metal we could make tools from, and perhaps more so. We’ll take a look at what’s involved in extracting and purifying copper, and see how the methods we today use are not entirely different from those developed over seven millennia ago.
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Were it not for the thin sheath of water and carbon-based life covering it, our home planet would perhaps be best known as the “Silicon World.” More than a quarter of the mass of the Earth’s crust is silicon, and together with oxygen, the silicate minerals form about 90% of the thin shell of rock that floats on the Earth’s mantle. Silicon is the bedrock of our world, and it’s literally as common as dirt.
But just because we have a lot of it doesn’t mean we have much of it in its pure form. And it’s only in its purest form that silicon becomes the stuff that brought our world into the Information Age. Elemental silicon is very rare, though, and so getting appreciable amounts of the metalloid that’s pure enough to be useful requires some pretty energy- and resource-intensive mining and refining operations. These operations use some pretty interesting chemistry and a few neat tricks, and when scaled up to industrial levels, they pose unique challenges that require some pretty clever engineering to deal with.
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