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These ten minerals could provoke a US-China war and none is the coltan

Automotive News

The trade war between Washington and Beijing has begun with steel or aluminum, but there are elements in the periodic table that will make both governments sweat much more.
The trade war between the United States and China intensifies. First it was Trump who imposed tariffs on the Chinese import of metals such as steel or aluminum, which are basic for the construction of infrastructures, and now Beijing is hit back by the rise in commercial rates for 128 food products.

We do not know when the next installments of this serial will arrive, which promises to go long, but the technological chapter awaits its place, given that both powers aspire to be leaders in innovation and that the essential elements to build circuits, computers or mobile phones in short supply.

A study published this week in ‘PNAS’ analyzes the hunger that both the US and China have of this type of elements, in many cases rare metals that only occur in one or two countries of the world. The famous coltan, extracted from tantalum, has starred many of the pages that have been written about it, but it is neither the only case nor the worst. There are at least ten other elements of the periodic table that put both Yankees and Chinese on the edge of the chair.

There are elements that China produces and the United States does not and vice versa, but the most used today are those that neither of the two nations produces but both need strategically. They are, in total, 11 elements of the periodic table, which we present from least to greatest strategic importance.

Dependence of chemical elements for the United States (Y) and China (X). In quadrant 4 are the elements that both countries lack.

This element is ideal to mix it with steel in alloys with medical applications. It is also widely used in the chemical industry for its resistance to acid corrosion.

The main quarry of this metal is found in South Africa.

Lithium is fundamental in contemporary industry, mainly due to its use for rechargeable batteries, a sector that has been revolutionized thanks to the ions and polymers created from this mineral. Nowadays it is present in mobile phones, computers and even electric vehicles.

The country with the largest production of lithium is currently Chile.

Palladium, Platinum and Rhodium
These three elements appear together in the periodic table and it is not by chance. Beyond its application in jewelery, these three metals are basic catalytic converters, or in other words, to reduce emissions in vehicles with combustion engines.

Most of the production of these three elements is done in South Africa and are among the most urgent for two reasons. One, that the car fleet in China is growing at the same time that they need to reduce their pollution. On the other hand, the adoption of electric cars is increasing in the United States, which does not need platinum for the catalysts but for the fuel cells.

Rhenium is a by-product that appears when the molybdenum concentrate is toasted, which in turn is a byproduct of copper. Access to this material will be a decisive factor in the next space race, if there is one, or when establishing the air superiority between both powers.

Mainly, because rhenium alloys allow turbines capable of operating closer to the combustion zone of a jet, as well as higher operating temperatures or better engine performance at higher temperatures. As with lithium, the main market to ask for renium is Chile.

This metal is part of the alloys, especially in the automotive industry, because it reduces weight while maintaining both stiffness and resistance. Again, following the index elaborated by researchers in ‘PNAS’, it is an element that the United States needs to import much more than China.

It is possible to extract titanium from other minerals such as ilmenite, which China has, but the main source is rutile. Half of the world rutile reserves are in Australia.

Much more crucial for the United States than for China, manganese serves, point number one, to produce iron and steel. Specifically, it is key to producing stainless steel at a relatively low cost.

The main reserves, again, are in South Africa.

Chromite is the mineral from which chromium is extracted, an essential ingredient for, for example, stainless steel. A priori, China is able to extract chromite from its mines, but not enough to feed its voracious demand for stainless steel, which has been growing at an unsustainable rate since 2000.

The largest world reserves of this mineral are, again, in South Africa.

This metal is used to combine with low alloy steels, making it ideal for skyscrapers, bridges, pipes and, of course, vehicles. It is the scarcest metal in the world, and in fact, 85% of all the niobium in the world comes from a single mine in Brazil.

A miner seeks gold and niobium in an illegal mine in the Amazon (Reuters)

Then there is a second mine in the country of Rio de Janeiro, which accounts for 98% of the world production of this element, and a little in Canada. In this sense, China has advanced to the United States. In 2011, it purchased 15% of the shares of the company that manages the exploitation of the main mine, and in 2016, it acquired 100% of the small niobium mine in Brazil.


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