How will your life change when the supply of tantalum dries up? You may have never heard of this unusual metal, but without it smartphones would be instantly less omniscient, video game systems would falter, and laptops fail. Tantalum is not alone. Rhodium. Osmium. Niobium. Such refugees from the bottom of the periodic table are key components of many consumer products like cell phones, hybrid car batteries, and flat screen televisions, as well as sophisticated medical devices and even weapon systems. Their versatile properties have led manufacturers to seek these elements out to maximize longevity, value, and efficiency, but not without a human price.
In addition to explaining the chemistry behind rare earth metals, Rare delves into the economic and geopolitical issues surrounding these “conflict minerals,” blending tales of financial and political struggles with glimpses into the human lives that are shattered by the race to secure them. In the past decade, the Congo has been ravaged by tribal wars fought to obtain control of tantalum, tungsten, and tin supplies in the region, with over five million people dying at the crossroads of supply and demand. A burgeoning black market in China, Africa, and India is propped up by school-age children retrieving and purifying these metals while risking their lives and health in the process. Fears of future political struggles inside China, the world’s largest supplier of these metals, have already sent the United States, Great Britain, and Japan racing to find alternative sources.
Will scientists be able to create lab substitutes for some or all of these metals? Will Afghanistan be the next big supplier of rare metals? What happens when the limited supply runs out? Whatever the answers, it is clear that our modern lifestyle, dependent on technology, is far from stable.
About the Author
Keith Veronese holds a PhD in Chemistry and has written for Gawker Media extensively, particularly for their science site io9. He has also written for Alpha Brand Media's family of websites and in magazines published by TwoMorrows Publishing. He is the author of Plugged In: Comic Book Professionals Working in the Video Game Industry.
"Engaging, eclectic…. Veronese’s analyses of the various factors affecting supply of these metals adds up to a good overview.... Rare makes powerful points about the consequences of conspicuous consumption.” —Nature
"The underlying science is accessible and is deftly combined with comments on the often-overlooked societal implications of the planet’s chemical make-up. Viewed as a kind of ‘essential guide’ to crucial elements, Rare outlines their increasing geopolitical importance in the modern world.” —BBC Focus Magazine
“Delves into history, mineral science, politics, and numerous other fields with impressive ease…. Rare is precisely that: a rarity, a book loaded with information that never bores or talks down to the reader. And this book will only grow more relevant in the coming years.” —San Francisco Book Review
“A fascinating and easy-to-follow guide to an obscure but hugely important subject, one that will be in the headlines every day once our grandchildren are adults; and for anyone who is curious about what makes the teeny-tiny devices of our modern world work as well as they do, this is well worth picking up.” —Chicago Center for Literature and Photography
“Rare is a clear and entertaining account of the fascinating properties of rare earths, their importance to the world, and the unique roles only they can play in many high-tech devices."
—Theodore Gray, author of The Elements: A Visual Exploration and Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything