The Common Elements of Innovation
Rare earth elements with exotic names such as europium and tantalum are crucial for future technologies such as hybrid cars, but their scarcity could thwart innovation.
But more common metals used in the tech industry could fare better, even if their prices rise due to worldwide demand. For example, lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars and smart phones won't run out anytime soon because there is an overabundance of lithium, Jack Lifton, an independent consultant for U.S. rare earths, told the Gold Report during a December interview.
Other important elements tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS):
Iron and steel make up about 95 percent of all the metal produced in the United States and worldwide, and find uses in thousands of products. These are the least expensive of the world's metals.
Aluminum is the second most abundant metallic element in the Earth's crust, just behind silicon. Its light weight, durability, corrosion resistance and malleability make it the most widely used metal after iron.
Copper has one of the oldest lineages of any metal, and has served as the foundation for many ancient civilizations. It still represents the third most-used industrial metal because of its thermal and electrical conductivity – characteristics that make it highly useful in power transmission, telecommunication, and many electronic products.
Gold is still coveted for its monetary value and for jewelry, but it is also an excellent electrical conductor. As an industrial metal, its applications include computers , communications equipment, spacecraft and jet aircraft engines.
Silver has been used for thousands of years to make ornaments, utensils, and coins. Of all the metals, pure silver has the highest reflectivity, and the highest thermal and electrical conductivity. As a result, silver has many industrial applications including mirrors, electrical and electronic products, and photography .
Niobium and Tantalum find uses in a variety of high-tech applications. Niobium (also known as columbium) shows up in jet engine components and rocket subassemblies, while tantalum is used to make parts for cell phones, pagers, personal computers and automotive electronics. The U.S. currently imports both resources from countries such as Brazil, Canada and Australia.