The book “The Elements of Power” by David S. Abraham discusses our increasing dependence on many of the rare (minor) metals used in modern technology. In eleven chapters, the author discusses the importance of (rare) metals to modern technology (e.g., energy, communication, infrastructure, and defense), historical developments that led to increasing metals use, environmental issues of metals production (mining, refining, and smelting), and expected future trends in metal demand (e.g., increasing use of renewable energy technologies and associated metal requirements). The author describes in several short stories and anecdotes the crucial role of the minor metals in today’s technologies and argues that their complex production chains, finite supplies, and geological distribution, have the potential to result in supply disruptions and geopolitical conflicts in the near future. Abraham concludes that, unless we better understand the metals basis of modern society, shifting to renewable energy systems, hybrid cars, and smart grids, is likely to lead to burden shifting and unintended (environmental) consequences. The discussions bring up a number of important aspects of today’s metal production system, namely (1) the issue of companion metal production which can lead to imbalances in supply and demand, (2) the problem of low recycling rates for many of the metals (in this context Abraham correctly cautions that we will not be able to “recycle” ourselves out of the problem of a finite metals supply), (3) increasing supply chain complexities and trade relationships which make companies (and countries) more vulnerable to supply restrictions, (4) environmental implications of metals production, and (5) market dominance for several minor metals (e.g., niobium, rare earth metals, platinum grade metals) by only a few companies or countries worldwide. The author calls for more metals research and better education in materials science and metallurgy to address these problems.
The book is written for a popular audience and Abraham is able to discuss a multitude of complex topics of today’s metal production system in an engaging and interesting manner. Describing his own experiences and encounters with actors of the metals world, e.g. talking with metals traders, miners, product developers, and traveling to mines and production sites around the globe, helps to keep the topics fluid and interesting. The book represents, in my view, an important attempt to communicate the issues of metals resources to a wider popular audience, thereby increasing people’s awareness of resource issues and the use of metals in modern technologies we all depend on.
I am not aware of similar popular science books on the topic of metal resources and criticality. The UNEP Resource Panel has picked up the topic of metals in various reports that have been published since 2011. These are semi-scientific reports that discuss topics such as (1) metals stocks in society, (2) recycling rates of metals, (3) environmental impact of metals, (4) geological metal stocks, (5) future demand for metals, and (6) critical metals and metal policy options. Resource issues are discussed in the context of other research efforts, e.g., on decoupling economic growth from resource use, or biotic resources (biomass). These reports can be found at http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/tabid/54044/Default.aspx.
Furthermore, the ‘Critical Materials Handbook’ by Gus Gunn was recently published by Wiley in an attempt to summarize some of the information on elements deemed important (in terms of their supply risk, environmental implications, and vulnerability to supply restriction by so called “criticality assessments” (http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470671718.html). However, the book by Gus Gunn is more geared toward a scientific audience interested in learning more about a specific element or metal group. Therefore, I don’t think there are any competing books in the public realm at the moment.
I feel that the manuscript will act as an important communication tool between the world of “metals researchers” and the general public. It is written on a timely and very important topic and has the potential to increase public awareness, knowledge, and interest in the wider topic of ‘abiotic resources’ and interconnected metals supply chains.
-Philip Nuss, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
You can find the book reviewed in this blog at the Yale University Press website: http://www.yalebooks.com/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300196795