If you ate today, thank a farmer.
We take many things for granted in today's world. Our technological gadgets, the vehicles that transport us from point A to point B, houses, roads and a million other things. Indeed, without many of these creations the world as we know it would simply not exist. What we often don't stop to think about though is where the raw materials to manufacture or build these things comes from. Just as a farmer, at some stage, has had a hand in producing pretty much everything we put in our mouths, so too has a mine somewhere in the world had a hand in producing the raw materials that go into products we use every day. In other words, nearly everything we use, live or work in relies to some degree on minerals that are extracted from the earth's crust. If you have an iPhone for example, it uses 75 different elements at last count. Amongst them are rare earth minerals like europium, gadolinium, terbium and yttrium. They also contain silicon, aluminium, carbon, potassium, lithium, gold, tin ….
But onto a brief list of some of the primary metals that are an integral part of our daily lives:
Where would the world be without aluminium, a strong, corrosion resistant, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-sparking, non-magnetic, ductile and malleable material with a thousand or more uses! One of those is in cement. Aluminium is extracted from bauxite, an ore that needs to be mined.
Cobalt - Powering The Future Of Motoring
Electric cars - they're clean and green and they look set to be the future of motoring. The batteries in these cars though require cobalt, amongst other things. Cobalt is a mineral and it comes from the ground. It's a very handy and much overlooked mineral with many surprising uses, not the least of which is rechargeable batteries like those in electric cars. Cobalt is also an integral component in many different types of wear and corrosion resistant alloys. These alloys are used to manufacture high performance components for use in things like engine parts for aircraft. Cobalt is also used in electroplating and as a pigment colouring in blue and green coloured ceramics and glass. Interestingly enough though cobalt itself is metallic grey in colour. It only changes colour when oxidised. 60Co is a radioactive type of cobalt that is used for treating cancer.
Copper The Conductor
Copper is an important component in electrical cabling and water pipes, two essential building 'ingredients'. It's second only to silver as an efficient conductor of electricity and heat. It doesn't rust easily and is soft and easy to manipulate. Copper is the primary component in bronze and brass; think of all the things that are made from those! It's also the first metal our ancestors learned to extract and use instead of stone.
A Backbone Of Steel Or Should That Be Iron
If we'd be struggling in a world without aluminium, we'd be even worse off without iron! Iron is the core ingredient in steel. Steel is literally the backbone upon which our modern civilisation exists. Steel in some shape or form is what makes most of our buildings, and other structures, possible. Take a quick look around your home and work place and take note of all the items that incorporate some form of steel or steel alloy. Iron is mined as iron ore.
Cast In Concrete
Where there's steel there is usually concrete. In 2010 the world produced 3.27 billion metric tons of cement, the binding agent used in concrete. By 2030 this is predicted to reach 4.87 billion metric tons. Cement is the most widely used commodity in the world. Or the second if you count water. All components in concrete come from materials that have to be mined or quarried. Cement is primarily made of limestone, silica, aluminium, iron oxide and a few other components. The aggregate that is added to cement to make concrete is rock, sand or gravel, or a mix of these. Again, these need to be quarried or dug out of the ground.
If you've ever had an x-ray, it was another mineral called lead that shielded you from the harmful radiation emitted by this equipment. It's also lead that performs a similar task when you look at a computer monitor or switch on your television, both of which also emit radiation. When you turn the ignition key in your motor vehicle and it purrs into life, it's thanks to the lead-acid battery installed under the bonnet. Being a very dense material lead is also used in sound and vibration insulation. It's corrosion proof, which makes it ideal for using in cable sheaths and for lining storage containers and pipes that carry corrosive liquids. Unlike the massive open pit iron ore operations, most lead mines are underground operations and lead usually occurs in tandem with other minerals. There is a major lead, zinc and silver ore body at Broken Hill in Australia for example. Interestingly however more than 50% of the lead we use today comes from recycled products, notably recycled car batteries.
Magnesium isn't just part of the food chain! As a very lightweight mineral, magnesium is also widely used in applications where additional weight could be a hindrance ie aerospace and missiles. You'll also find magnesium in fireworks, camera flashlights, flares, furnace linings as well as the photoengraved plates using in printing. To name a few….
Nickel For A Nickel
The earth's inner core is made of iron. Surrounding it is a ~1220 kilometre wide layer of liquid nickel iron alloy. It's the movement in this liquid, caused by the earth's rotation, which generates the earth's magnetic field. So already nickel is an important mineral right there! Once extracted from the ground, nickel is found in many of the gadgets we take for granted. Your mobile phone for example uses a nickel-cadmium rechargeable battery. Coins contain nickel in varying amounts – the more 'silver' the coin the more nickel it contains. But by far the biggest use for nickel is in alloys – there are around 3,000 different types of nickel alloys. The one that most of us would be familiar with is stainless steel.
Stainless steel also contains chromium, a mineral mined as chromite and used in a variety of applications, mostly as part of alloys. Most of us are familiar with chromium via shiny chrome plated objects but chromium has many other common uses including as part of the leather tanning and dying process. If you have any of those old cassette and VCR tapes lying around, chances are the tape in them is coated with particles of chromium oxide.
The Silver Screen
It's called the 'silver screen' for a reason! The photographic film used to record the movie you're watching contains silver bromide, a particularly light sensitive material that is made from oxidised silver and bromide ions. Around one third of silver is used for photographic media. Other uses for silver include silver batteries for use in portable televisions, hearing aids and space satellites. Every time you look in a mirror your reflection is bounced back to you courtesy of the silver in the backing layer. When you need to de-frost your car windows, the substance in the de-misting lines that transfers heat to the glass is silver. As a safe electricity conductor silver has no peer so it's used in the fuses, contacts and switches that operate just about all electrical appliances.
Tin For Tins
A quick check of most pantries will reveal a tin can or two, whether it's canned pet food, canned fruit / vegetables or the ubiquitous can of baked beans! Whilst many cans are made from aluminium these days, tin has a long history of use as a rust-resistant coating for steel cans. Our ancestors also used tin for a multitude of purposes. Amongst other things they discovered how to mix it with copper to produce the ultra handy metals bronze and brass. Tin is also one of the metals in pewter.
Titanium – A Titus Of A Mineral
Titanium is a mineral extracted from mineral sands. It makes a lightweight, very strong and rust resistant metal with a very high melting point. For this reason it is ideal for aerospace applications. Because it's non-toxic, titanium comes in handy for making medical equipment including artificial limbs, pacemakers and surgical equipment. Titanium sports equipment is also popular. Titanium dioxide is used in sunscreens due to it's UV reflective capacity and is a useful pigment for colouring paints, paper, plastics, rubber, ink, textiles and food – ever wondered what food colouring 171 is?
If you have a shed full of tools, chances are some of them contain a metal called tungsten carbide. The cutting and drilling ones at least. With a hardness almost comparable to diamond, tungsten carbide is often used on tools and equipment that require a hard wearing, long lasting cutting edge. Other tungsten alloys can be found in heating, lighting, electrical and welding products where they are a primary constituent in electrodes, wires and filaments. Tungsten comes out of the ground as either wolframite, hence its element symbol W, or scheelite.
Zn Is For Zinc
Who isn't familiar with galvanised steel and products like Zincalume? Like most minerals, zinc is a very handy mineral indeed. Apart from its popular use as a rust proof coating on steel products, zinc is also mixed with other minerals to create a range of alloys that are used in many applications. From die cast products to zinc-bromide and zinc-nickel batteries, zinc is all around us. Zinc oxide is used in rubber tyre manufacturing and to make those colourful zinc creams you smear across your face to block the sun. Anti-dandruff shampoos, calamine lotion and some antiseptic lotions contain zinc oxide. Brass is a copper zinc alloy. Zinc sulphate makes luminous numerals and dials luminous. Other types of zinc compounds are used to fire proof timber, as surgical dressings and in glue. Yes, we would be a lot worse off without zinc, and zinc mines!
We have only touched the tip of the iceberg with the dozen or so major commodities we've listed here. Indeed it's estimated that around 30 of the elements on the periodic table form part of our daily lives in some way. Some of our gadgets, like that smartphone, use dozens of them. Therefore, whilst you're thanking farmers for your daily bread, take a minute or two to think about all the things you also use on a daily basis. If you drove your car today, used your smartphone, turned on a tap, flicked a light switch, opened a can, switched on a kitchen appliance, applied calamine lotion or did any one of the other myriad things we do on a daily basis, you should also think about thanking a miner!