Most people think of one or more of the following when they hear the word “chromium”:
- Shiny, shiny chrome
- The open-source platform underlying Google’s browser
- Health supplements
- The “stainless” part of stainless steel
- Chemistry class
These are all common enough (plus the software has nothing to do with the physical element). So why does the United States call chromium a strategic mineral?
Cesium (“caesium,” outside the US) is not just a ringtone. Nor is it simply the atom used in ultra-precise clocks
that make everything from the Internet to GPS possible, thanks to accurate time stamps.
Yes, cesium defines time itself.
Although it can be hazardous in some forms, cesium also is extremely useful in a variety of niche applications ranging from things like catalyzing chemical processes to cleaning sulfur out of crude oil to making fiber optic and other specialty glasses to building cellphone motion sensor devices.
In its manmade radioactive form, Cs137 is used for treating cancer and sterilizing equipment in modern medicine; and as cesium formate, it is rented out as a reusable brine to companies drilling oil and gas wells in high-temperature, high-pressure formations.
The United States depends on imports, mainly from a mine in Canada. And that mine closed in 2015, although its cesium stock is still sufficient to meet US and worldwide demand for the near future.
Why are those scientists risking their lives, and then casting longing glances back at the deadly crystals even as they leave the cave?
Because this is what gypsum is like up at the surface:
: A gypsum rose from southern Tunisia, by the paleobear
, CC BY 2.0.
This isn’t a dreamy video, despite its name, although it does have some incredibly beautiful shots. It’s the trailer for a movie about a controversy
over aluminum smelters in Iceland.
Basically, smelters use a lot of electricity (over 14 megawatts per ton, on average) and Iceland’s relatively inexpensive hydropower and geothermal power have attracted “Big Aluminum.”
I came across it while researching yesterday’s post on aluminum, and couldn’t fit it in there.
I haven’t seen the movie, and I don’t know much about Iceland’s recent financial crisis or its economy. This Dreamland trailer is just an interesting, very well-done introduction to complex issues that all of us have a stake in because we face them, too, in various ways elsewhere in the world, though we might not have known it also happens in Iceland.
Most residents of the United States think of foil, beverage cans, and recycling when we hear the word “aluminum” (or “aluminium”); then lots of other things come to mind, including vehicles, aircraft, and various items in our homes and offices.
Aluminum is even more widespread than we realize. As a metal, it’s also used in construction and for electrical power systems, including wires and cables. Many machines are made of aluminum, too.
As alumina–powdery aluminum oxide–it’s present in industrial refractories and many chemicals down to and including the main ingredients in styptic pencils and antiperspirants (alum–a naturally occuring aluminum salt–has been used as an astringent for centuries).
Aluminum is obviously common and inexpensive, so why is it on the US government’s 2018 “endangered minerals” list?
An update on this February 2018 post is needed because the US Department of the Interior recently issued its final list of critical minerals (see end of post)
Gold, silver, and gems aren’t the only treasures out there. The materials that make our modern life possible aren’t always pretty, but they are very important. The rare ones, like the platinum group elements
, are also expensive.
Recently, the US government put together a list of the minerals that it considers to be most important to the security and economic welfare of the country. While insiders recognize a difference between “critical” and “strategic,” in practice the two are pretty much the same minerals.
This list has a link for each of the 35 minerals, showing how they are used and lots of other information.
In addition, here is a webinar on critical minerals from 2016.
Update: On May 18, 2018, Interior issued its final list, which is the same as the proposed list:
This element was named after a Norse goddess of beauty because it comes in many colors, which chemists enjoy playing with:
Hard to believe vanadium is also a critical mineral used in metal alloys, as well as a possible cancer drug!
This colorful element is found in multivitamin supplements, though there is no US recommended dietary amount. The quantities are very small–there is a very fine balance between too much and too little of this mineral!
Vanadium apparently isn’t mined out like gold, silver, or even phosphate. According to the USGS 2018 mineral commodity report, it is generally produced as a by-product of various industrial processes. That’s not a very auspicious origin for an element whose compounds “have been shown to be potentially effective against diabetes Type 2, malign tumors including cancer, endemic tropical diseases (such as trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis and amoebiasis), bacterial infections (tuberculosis and pneumonia) and HIV infections.” (Source)
Very little is known yet about vanadium’s effects on our bodies. It sounds promising, though–we can only wait for new discoveries to be made about this chameleon of the periodic table.
: Steffan Kristensen
, public domain.
Did you ever wonder why there is a mineral named after a Moon goddess in your daily vitamin?
It was one of those weird naming things, according to Dr. Wikipedia. The scientist who discovered the element noticed that it was similar to another element that had already been named after the Earth.
Whatever the etymology, we are all lucky to have a good source of selenium in multivitamins, though we only need a trace amount, as this video from the University of North Dakota shows:
, CC BY 2.0
Fracking isn’t the only human activity that involves pumping water through rocks. Steam produced by geothermally heated water is an alternative energy source meant to help free us from burning fossil fuels.
Last week, two scientific papers were published that raised the possibility of a geothermal plant in South Korea causing or at least contributing to an unusual strong earthquake.
This video is in Korean but pictures are worth a thousand words. The situation is well-explained in English here.
, CC BY-SA 3.0.
This element is on the critical mineral list, and not simply because it soothes an upset tummy.
But bismuth is also a lot of fun.
No, wait! Wait!
I want to see more of those colors!
Believe it or not, bismuth has even inspired artwork.
Featured image: <a href="https://pixabay.com/en/bismuth-bismuth-crystal-tint-metal-626546/" target="_blank"Fill, at Pixabay. Public domain.