How a Handful of Countries Control the Earth's Most Precious Materials

While the global market for ever more sophisticated tech gadgets grows, the metals and minerals that make them go are controlled by a handful of countries.

To see a list of the raw materials that comprise a cell phone or a computer is to burrow to the planet's core. Some of the names are familiar — gold, tin — while others sound as exotic as the places from which they come — tantalum, indium. As our gadget dependency grows, so does our appetite for these bits of Earth. In fact, demand for the 14 most-critical minerals for today's electronic technologies may as much as triple over the next 20 years, according to the European Commission.

Myriad factors — volatile markets, low substitution rates, export restrictions — make some materials more precious than others. "The era of access to easy resources is over," says mining analyst Paul Bugala of Calvert Investments. And while governments may be eager to cash in on their mineral wealth, "the track record for developing countries taking advantage of natural-resource wealth in a sustainable way is really short," he says. "There's often a race to the bottom in terms of regulation and development cost. Any means necessary is used to make sure we have the coltan in our cell phones." Here, a look at these in-demand materials and the nations that produce them.

Charts reflect each country's officially reported share of global production, based on latest available data compiled by the European Commission. Only market share of 10% or higher is shown.

Canada: Lithium batteries account for roughly 20% of the cobalt used today, but portable battery usage is expected to rise sharply over the next decade, especially with the emergence of electric vehicles.

U.S.: Beryllium — a toxic, light metal with high melting point and strength — is used in computer and telecom products, as well as home appliances, automotive electronics, and medical equipment. The bulk of the world's beryllium is mined in Utah and Alaska.

Mexico: Geologists laud fluorspar both for its beauty — it's a rainbow of dazzling crystals, ranging from fluorescent white to deep black — and for its versatility. It's commonly used in steel, paints, floor insulation, high-performance optics (in place of glass), and even chimney linings.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: After protests against Intel and Apple for their opaque supply chains, President Barack Obama signed a law in July that requires firms to report to the SEC whether their products contain "conflict minerals," including the tin, gold, and cobalt that have helped fuel years of warfare in the D.R.C. Counting both black-market and official output, the D.R.C. also produces an estimated one-fifth of the world's tantalum, a coltan extract that helps energy storage in devices such as the iPod. "This law is going to affect virtually the entire U.S. manufacturing sector," says Rick Goss, VP of environment at the Information Technology Industry Council.

Brazil: The majority of niobium makes its way into structural steel. It's also used in medical tech (MRI scanners, pacemakers) and electronics (microcapacitors). From 1995 to 2005, production of the lustrous gray metal more than doubled. The big beneficiary: the Brazilian company CBMM, which controls 70% of the global market.

Russia: Vehicle manufacturers currently account for roughly half of global platinum and palladium consumption. Though automotive air-pollution-reduction technology in automobiles provides the hottest demand for the six platinum-group metals (iridium, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhodium, and ruthenium), these minerals can also be found up and down the electronics aisle, in hard disks, integrated circuits, and LCD panels.

Turkey: As recently as 1995, nearly half of the world's magnesium came from the U.S., but Uncle Sam has since lost its lead in the market for this commonly used structural metal. New production out of Turkey and China has lowered prices.

Afghanistan: Could minerals reinvent Afghanistan's economy and make it one of the world's premier mining centers? U.S. officials think so. This summer, they announced nearly $1 trillion in mineral deposits — including cobalt, niobium, rare earth metals, copper, gold, and iron — had been found in Afghanistan. An internal Pentagon memo says Afghanistan could become the "Saudi Arabia of lithium."

China: The world's No. 1 metals consumer holds more than half of the known global reserves of 9 of the 14 most critical raw materials. Thank it for your buzzing cell phone: China is the top producer of tungsten, which makes cell phones vibrate. Despite soaring international demand, it maintains strict export restraints; this past summer, it imposed new limits on output of minerals. The U.S. and EU cried foul, calling on the WTO to rule on the legality of such export restraints. Chinese Ministry of Commerce director general He Ning defends the restrictions necessary "to protect our environment and preserve the minerals for future generations."

Japan: Indium's first large-scale use was in high-performance aircraft engines during World War II. Today, thin films for flat-screen displays are by far its No. 1 application.

India: While the recession has cut graphite demand, emerging technologies are expected to lift the mineral: Large-scale deployment of fuel-cell technology currently in development could transform the global graphite market.

Australia: Aussie-based Talison Minerals — which long supplied a third of the world's tantalum, used in gaming consoles, computers, and cameras — suspended production in 2008 due to cheaper prices being offered by miners in Africa, causing disarray in the tantalum market. It may restart its mine next year.

South Africa: In 2007, South Africa lost to China a title it had held for a century — world's top gold producer — but it still holds the crown for platinum, which is used in catalytic converters and many high-tech lab applications. The earth's largest reserves are located in the Bushveld Complex.

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Kash Cooper

    Good article, but you fail to mention the lithium that Bolivia is currently trying to mine.