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The Elements of Power Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

By: David S Abraham(Author)
319 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Remarkably balanced and comprehensive, The Elements of Power is an incredibly insightful book that shows how rare metals rule our lives.
The Elements of Power
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  • The Elements of Power ISBN: 9780300226904 Paperback Jun 2017 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • The Elements of Power ISBN: 9780300196795 Hardback Jan 2016 Out of Print #226839
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

Our future hinges on a set of elements that few of us have even heard of. In this surprising and revealing book, David S. Abraham unveils what rare metals are and why our electronic gadgets, the most powerful armies, and indeed the fate of our planet depend on them. These metals have become the building blocks of modern society; their properties are now essential for nearly all our electronic, military, and "green" technologies. But their growing use is not without environmental, economic, and geopolitical consequences.

Abraham traces these elements' hidden paths from mines to our living rooms, from the remote hills of China to the frozen Gulf of Finland, providing vivid accounts of those who produce, trade, and rely on rare metals. He argues that these materials are increasingly playing a significant role in global affairs, conferring strength to countries and companies that can ensure sustainable supplies.

Just as oil, iron, and bronze revolutionized previous eras, so too will these metals. The challenges The Elements of Power reveals, and the plans it proposes, make it essential reading for our rare metal age.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Remarkably balanced and comprehensive
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 29 Apr 2021 Written for Paperback

    Tantalum, tellurium, indium, niobium, germanium, dysprosium, rhenium, yttrium, neodymium, titanium, lithium, tungsten, cobalt. These are but some of the many chemical elements that are collectively known as rare metals. You will probably recognize only a few of them, but trace quantities are in products and structures all around you, making things stronger, faster, and lighter. They are used to make smartphones, laptops, and fibre-optic cables; but also cars, airplanes, and military weapon systems; and even photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. We live in the Rare Metal Age, writes natural resources strategist David S. Abraham here.

    Before proceeding, about that name, rare metals. Also known as minor metals, it is a blanket term that includes rare earth elements. And though metallurgists cannot agree on a definition, the Minor Metals Trade Association currently recognizes 49 metals, encompassing pretty much everything that is not a base (e.g. iron or copper) or precious metal (e.g. gold or silver). The rarity can refer to their limited consumption (hundreds vs. millions of tons annually), but also their geological occurrence. Some are scarce, while others are plentiful but so dilute that they rarely can be mined profitably.

    Nomenclature aside, there are many reasons why rare metals are exceptional, unpredictable, and troublesome. The Elements of Power explores numerous facets of our use of them, and I found this book to be remarkably balanced and comprehensive in its coverage.

    First off, simply developing a mine is not straightforward. Their geology means there are only limited places where a metal can be profitably mined, allowing a few countries or companies to monopolise the world's supply. This leads to geopolitical tensions, and when China restricted rare earth exports in 2010, it rattled industries around the world.

    Furthermore, extraction and purification are expensive and "[m]any rare metals are so technically challenging for chemists to produce that it is better to think of them as chemical creations rather than geological minerals" (p. 69). Every mineral vein is different and optimising the production process can take years of trial and error. Several decades can pass between a mining company finding willing investors and producing metals. There is no cookbook you can turn to and a lot of knowledge is hard-earned and jealously guarded. And with rare metal specialists a dying breed due to the lack of dedicated university departments in Europe and the US, there has been a brain-drain towards Asia.

    Then there is the lack of openness in the trading sector. Commodity traders are already a shady bunch, but as Abraham's interviews with anonymous sources reveal, this sector is "a web of small companies of specialty traders", with materials having to travel "through a murky network of traders, processors, and component manufacturers" (p. 90). There are no exchanges such as for oil with accepted benchmark prices. Business is very much about who you know – backroom deals, smuggling, and distrust are rife. "No one really knows the true size of these markets. Even the U.S. Geological Survey [...] won't hazard a guess [...]" (p. 91). And given that many rare metals are recovered as by-products of other mining activities, there is no neat supply-and-demand relationship, resulting in volatile prices.

    The economic side of rare metals is, in short, complex. And that is a problem, as we use much. Abraham gives numerous examples of their use in our gadgets, cars, airplanes, and weapons. The iPhone "relies on nearly half the elements on the planet" (p. 2), while "the newest weapon systems like the F-35 are flying periodic tables" (p. 168). And we will need even more in the future for green technologies: for the magnets in wind turbines and the batteries in electric cars. Once Abraham works through these examples, you realise that these technologies are anything but "green".

    Mining in general "[...] speeds up otherwise relatively benign natural processes that usually occur over millennia [...] (p. 180). Some have even called it planetary plunder. But rare-metal mining is even more taxing on the environment. Abraham describes the different refining steps – the crushing of rock, the leaching of ores using strong acids – highlighting how energy-intensive and polluting these practices are. And in case you are wondering, recycling "[...] is not a panacea. It too has its own environmental consequences [...]" (p. 177). Next to the challenges of gathering the waste and getting people to recycle rather than discard, separating complex devices back into their component elements is no less energy-intensive and polluting. An important point Abraham makes is that "the combination of metals in products like batteries and even steel are in far more complex alloys than the finite set found in nature" (p. 190). Often, whether recycling is even possible has simply not been studied yet.

    If rare metals are so problematic, can we not just swap one metal for another? The answer is no, but outside material scientists, few understand the subtleties. The performance we now routinely demand from our technology is such that we cannot simply substitute one metal for another without sacrificing performance, affordability, structural integrity, or weight. And what is true of weapons, "[w]ithout some of these minor metals you would have to go back to 1960s or 1970s performance" (p. 166), holds for most applications.

    The combination of few mines, opaque and complex supply chains, and the booming demand for these metals makes for a very uncertain future that has analysts and governments concerned. Demand is likely to outstrip supply, at least in the short term: "[...] we could be condemned to a fossil fuel world, if we cannot bolster the rare metal supply lines we need to support our green technologies" (p. 136), warns Abraham. When even the former CEO of mining giant Vale is quoted as saying "[t]he reality is the planet is very small for the number of inhabitants we will see in 2025" (p. 219), I cannot help but wonder how much of this an endless rat race of techno-fixes that are doomed to fail. Nevertheless, Abraham's envisioned solution is not to shy away from using them but to double down: "to search for more sources, use them more efficiently, and advance our knowledge of geology, metallurgy, and material science" (p. 219).

    The Elements of Power tackles this topic from many angles, and Abraham is a knowledgeable guide, not least because of his insider perspective of what is happening in China and Japan. If you want to better understand what the deal is with rare metals, this book comes highly recommended.
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David S. Abraham is a natural resource strategist who previously analyzed risk on Wall Street and at an energy-trading firm, oversaw natural-resources programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget, and ran a water-focused NGO in Africa. He currently directs the Technology, Rare and Electronics Materials Center. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

By: David S Abraham(Author)
319 pages, 3 b/w illustrations
Remarkably balanced and comprehensive, The Elements of Power is an incredibly insightful book that shows how rare metals rule our lives.
Media reviews

"A thought-provoking book that follows the trail of these elements [that] [...] are no less transformative – and are possibly just as valuable – as oil and coal."
The Economist

"In The Elements of Power, David Abraham explores a phenomena essential to our everyday lives and our future, but rarely studied or understood in the context of global policy or daily life. This is a book not just for specialists but also for those who are trying to chart a sustainable future for the world."
– Christie Todd Whitman, 50th governor of New Jersey, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

"Abraham deftly explains why the age of technology is also the age of rare metals – and what that could mean for the world. This book lays the groundwork for an important discussion we need to have."
– Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, and author of Every Nation for Itself

"For those of us who marvel at hybrid cars, smartphones, and wind turbines, but don't really know where indium, europium, and tantalum come from, an uneasy feeling is beginning to gnaw. In this extraordinary book, Abraham shows that the countries that control rare metals will control the future. His exhaustive research and vivid explanations are alarming and compelling."
– Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, former National Security Advisor and cofounder of the United States Energy Security Council

"With intelligence and nuance, Abraham sounds the alarm and brings attention to a coming resource conundrum. We are entering an age when the need for mere grams of obscure-sounding metals will have vast geopolitical consequences."
– James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Supreme Allied Commander, NATO (2009 to 2013)

"Abraham unearths fascinating tales of a set of metals which may seem inconsequential, but underpin our lifestyles in ways few outside of scientific and select business circles understand."
– Roderick G. Eggert, Colorado School of Mines and Critical Materials Institute

"David Abraham makes a complex, hidden but important subject both accessible and fascinating. Combining first-hand accounts with global statistics, he portrays the full picture of rare metals. His warnings and recommendations deserve our attention."
– Dennis Blair, Former Director of National Intelligence

"In The Elements of Power, David Abraham attmepts to peel back the screen on our devices and discover what's behind."
– Henry Sanderson, Financial Times

"Excellent [...] Anyone concerned about how we balance sustainability with a high-tech future should read this book."
Disruptive Discoveries Journal

"In The Elements of Power, David Abraham explores a phenomena essential to our everyday lives and our future, but rarely studied or understood in the context of global policy or daily life. This is a book not just for specialists but also for those who are trying to chart a sustainable future for the world."
– Christie Todd Whitman, 50th governor of New Jersey, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

"He tells his story in an extremely engaging manner [...] This is a remarkable book that genuinely changes how one views such objects as the iMac I am typing this review on or the iPhone buzzing on my desk."
– Michael Burleigh, Literary Review

"[A] fascinating and important book."
– Rupert Edis, Sunday Times

"Fast-paced [...] It succeeds in welcoming readers of any background to the otherwise impenetrable conversations about rare metal politics [...] [which] could scarcely be relayed more engagingly."
– Royal Society of Chemistry, Chemistry World

"David Abraham's The Elements of Power paints a global portrait with paradigm-shifting flair. It's a tale of shock and ore [...] welcoming readers of any background to the otherwise impenetrable conversation about rare metal geopolitics."
– Christopher Bernard, Chemistry World

"The Elements of Power is an insightful, innovative and convincing book."
– Thomas Rid, Survival

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