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The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age Hardcover – October 27, 2015
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"A remarkable book that genuinely changes how one views such objects as the iMac I am typing this review on...extremely engaging." --Literary Review (UK) Michael Burleigh
“In The Elements of Power, David Abraham explores a phenomena essential to our everyday lives and our future, but rarely studied or understood in the context of global policy or daily life. This is a book not just for specialists but also for those who are trying to chart a sustainable future for the world.”--Christie Todd Whitman, 50th governor of New Jersey, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency
“Abraham deftly explains why the age of technology is also the age of rare metals--and what that could mean for the world. This book lays the groundwork for an important discussion we need to have.”--Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, and author of Every Nation for Itself
“For those of us who marvel at hybrid cars, smartphones, and wind turbines, but don't really know where indium, europium, and tantalum come from, an uneasy feeling is beginning to gnaw. In this extraordinary book, Abraham shows that the countries that control rare metals will control the future. His exhaustive research and vivid explanations are alarming and compelling.”--Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, former National Security Advisor and cofounder of the United States Energy Security Council
"[Abraham] makes the subject matter highly accessible and engaging...in this sweeping and fascinating narrative." --The US Review of Books
“With intelligence and nuance, Abraham sounds the alarm and brings attention to a coming resource conundrum. We are entering an age when the need for mere grams of obscure-sounding metals will have vast geopolitical consequences.”—James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Supreme Allied Commander, NATO (2009 to 2013)
"Extraordinary...Although I've written extensively about modern mining and its consequences, I've never read anything that approaches the comprehensive expertise of The Elements of Power...Abraham's reporting deserves special praise." - Pacific Standard (Tim Heffernan)
“David Abraham makes a complex, hidden but important subject both accessible and fascinating. Combining first-hand accounts with global statistics, he portrays the full picture of rare metals. His warnings and recommendations deserve our attention.”—Dennis Blair, Former Director of National Intelligence
“A compelling, illuminating, and hugely important analysis...a brilliant discussion of what we need to do in the coming ‘Rare Metal Age’.” --General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army (Ret.), Chairman, KKR Global Institute
"Compelling...The Elements of Power makes a green case for rare metals... His passion for rare metals is genuine, and can be inspiring." -- The New Scientist
"[A] Fascinating and important book" -- The Times (UK)
“Fast-paced…It succeeds in welcoming readers of any background to the otherwise impenetrable conversations about rare metal politics...[which] could scarcely be relayed more engagingly” -- Royal Society of Chemistry, Chemistry World
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0300196792
- ISBN-13 : 978-0300196795
- Product Dimensions : 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
- Publisher : Yale University Press; Illustrated Edition (October 27, 2015)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #158,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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the OBSESSION with climate change and a green sustainable world was toxic —repetitive—and a great irony emerged throughout the book —it is the green revolution that is driving up the price and scarcity of many of these elements and for many of us this diversion is completely political not scientific
In Chapter VIII “War Effort-Hard and Smart Metals” the author makes the point that going back to antiquity “a country’s ability to harvest the power of the periodic table has translated directly to the success of its military…” as he states on page-157! On pages 160-161 the author then describes how during World War I the Germans needed “molybdenum” and bought a mine in the US State of Colorado “planning to use American resources against the United States!” Luckily, “the plan never materialized” IAW the author on page-161. Sadly, this is not only example of this the author utilizes. On pages 163-165, the author “highlights” the importance of the element “germanium” which IAW the author on page-165 “is at the heart of thermal-imaging” systems… in aircraft, ships and tanks as well as weapons sights mounted onto rifles…” Furthermore, on page-165 the author asserts “although the U.S. military is reducing its use of germanium in thermal imaging equipment as its wars end, a potential conflict is spurring new demand.” IAW the author, on page-165 “rising tensions between China and its neighbors, most notably, Japan, over territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, are currently leading the demand for germanium.” A very powerful point, on the importance of these metal’s/elements!
As far as Green Technology is concerned, on page-137 the author states “Green applications are far more than just wind turbines and solar panels; they are energy-efficient cars, lights and even elevators.” In Chapter VII- “Environmental Needs-Rare Metals Are Green” the author provides good examples of cost-metrics for various industries vs. the cost of using or not using rare earth metals. For example, on page-146 the author states “The consultancy McKinsey notes that with gasoline prices at about $3.50 a gallon, car companies that use batteries at prices below about $250 per kWh could produce electric vehicles competitively.” Clearly, taking about price points for bust or boom. And if boom, the author notes that the demand for “lithium” etc.. required in car batteries will also dramatically increase. Ergo, the author states on page-135, “And as abhorrent as this may sound to some environmentalists, green goals require increased mining and more processing of rare metals.” (Another good example is on page-150: “one may not think much about the power consumption of an elevator, but in the buildings that have them, the elevator uses 5 percent of the structures total energy use. Install a rare earth magnet motor in an elevator and it reduces energy use by half or more.”)
Environmentally, speaking the author makes the point on page-180 “Cohen tells me that ten thousand to twenty thousand streams in the United States are now lifeless because companies failed to take precautions to prevent or remediate acid mine drainage.” Acid’s and other caustic chemicals of various sorts are an integral part of “separating” rare-earth elements from other compounds and or elements, like “copper” per the author!
On a final note, the author makes a great point on education. The US for example is critically short of “material-scientists” and or engineers, whom are need to not only secure current advances in technology but the future as well. Additionally, the author makes a point, when talking “supply-chains,” that companies, often do not even know their own supply chain of rare earth elements due to things like sub-contracting out sub-components of major products….! This is per the author, highly problematic, and the US Military, where one major weapon system may cost billions, but contains in fact- thousands of sub-components that may have been sub-contracted out by the major supplier….to other smaller suppliers! IAW the author, it would take the US Military years to sort this out for all its weapons systems….! Perhaps, a workable solution, is when Congress grants the award of a contract for a major weapons system, the original “contractor” should be responsible for most all that weapons systems construction and/or sub-components in and of itself?????
Conclusion: This is a highly informative work that all interested in “Geo-politics,” technology and as well as “national-security” should read- in addition to "Prisoners of Geography- Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World" by Tim Marshall (at Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Prisoners-Geography-Explain-Everything-Politics/dp/1501121472/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1541921050&sr=8-1&keywords=prisoners+of+geography) as sort of tie together!
Top reviews from other countries
This book doesn’t just look at rare earth metals but intersperses pertinent information on rare metals and even the odd on base metals. Although this book is journalistic in style - both in writing and with lots of interviews - there is so much depth of knowledge and research in here. The book initially lays out the increasing use and variety of metals in our everyday products. There are some excellent technical bits on what they are used for an how neodymium magnets were developed. Of course this mining is now is concentrated in China, with the western competition mainly obliterated apart from a niobium mine in Brazil (CBBM).
There is a highly relatable chapter on small US start-up companies eating up cash trying to get off the ground and produce rare earth metals, but most are going nowhere. China has excess capacity. We get into some of the technical details of mining, the extraction and acid washing. Mining rare metals is tough and an incredible amount of waste is produced, much of it toxic. We get some pretty grim details that our transition to “green” energy is unlikely to be very clean. I also loved the information on the metal exchanges - Fanya and even the small bit on the LME being bought by a Hong Kong form. The dynamics of China dominating the market and fiddling with WTO rules are excellent.
There are some real insights and eye openers in here. Companies making equipment in a China can avail of much cheaper prices in the country - another reason to move manufacturing there along with cheap labour. But with the manufacturing has also gone the research. University interest in the west has plummeted without the manufacturing nearby. The courses and PhD students have disappeared. The book finishes off with some sobering thoughts. Recycling should become more prevalent but will probably be loss making without sizeable government support. We need superior agencies in the West for tackling reliance on China rather than the disparate system in place.
It’s a top class book and an easy read to boot with plenty of interesting characters to walk through the data.
Chapeau David S. Abraham.
As a not-entirely uneducated reader on this subject, I can say that Mr. Abraham, a natural resource strategist, who has worked on Wall Street, for an African-NGO, the White House and the Japanese government, delivers on this promise. The book should be added to the shelf of anyone who wants to understand the future of mining, metals and raw materials supply to industry, or anyone who is involved with policy-making in these areas.
Having met Mr. Abraham myself a few times at various obscure minor metals conferences in China, I can testify that the book has been extremely well-researched, undertaken over a period of several years. By way of disclosure, Mr. Abraham has been kind enough to include a few of my comments and observations on the industry in the book, so you will find me in the references and acknowledgements.
I have noted that Mr. Abraham has often disappeared, from the conferences we were attending, for a day-or-two to track down an obscure metals plant or mercurial industry-insider. The critical metals issue is often presented as a grand geopolitical battle involving federal governments in China, the United States, Europe and Japan, with the WTO playing a brokering role. The minor metals industry, as the name suggests, however, is played out by small-scale business and industry, local government officials, family-run metals traders and one-man band analysts and advisors. As such, Mr. Abraham’s book undoubtedly benefits from his efforts to locate and introduce us to some of the interesting characters within the minor metals industry.
The book starts with an introductory chapter on role of minor metals in the modern economy – a situation still not well-understood by much of the populace. Whilst not necessarily providing the backbone of the industrial economy they make the products we use that bit smaller, faster, cheaper and more powerful. This will probably be the first time many readers will have read about esoteric metals such as beryllium, bismuth, cadmium, cobalt, gallium, hafnium, indium, lithium, niobium, scandium, selenium, tantalum, tellurium, tungsten, vanadium, zirconium, and the ‘rare earths’.
Following the introductory chapter Mr. Abraham takes us on a journey through the minor metals supply chain, with each chapter focusing on a key part of the supply chain, or a critical issue affecting the industry. Each chapter is enlivened by Mr. Abraham’s field visits and ‘local contacts’.
The second chapter looks at the geological distribution of minor metals, and the inevitable geopolitical consequences of some being found in one place, but not the other – conflict of one form or another. The next chapter looks at the business of mining and its slightly grubby nature, dramatized by a field visit to the giant Araxa niobium mine in Brazil which dominates/controls global niobium supply – a metal which improves the performance of steel. Next he looks at the technical challenges of processing rare metals such as the rare earths, tantalum and niobium, and more importantly the lack of engineering talent in the West to do this. Almost inevitably Mr. Abraham finds himself in a former ‘not-on-the-map’ Soviet industrial city, now in Estonia, to find out about the lost art of rare metals processing, and suffering minor fluorine gas poisoning for his travails. Mr. Abraham then looks at how the metals find their way to the market, via network of small traders, including ‘Super Mario’ and a ‘Grateful Dead’ fan and small exchanges, including the Fanya exchange, one of a long line of failed Chinese financial exchanges.
Having reached the market, Mr. Abraham then looks at the parts of the economy most reliant on the rare metals – starting with the tech sector, noting that a mobile phone now contains barium, beryllium, boron, cobalt, gallium, strontium, tantalum, titanium, and numerous rare earth metals. Of course, every other industrial sector is now reliant on the tech sector, only multiplying the problem – for example, Mr. Abraham tells us that a Boeing 747 requires six million components sourced from thirty countries. The next industrial sector covered is the nascent green economy, and the use of rare metals in critical new technologies such as wind turbines and hybrid cars. This presents a challenging paradox for environmentalists in that green energy requires more mining for these metals, which are often in the unregulated, disreputable fringes of the mining industry. The final industrial sector reviewed is the military-industrial complex, with rare metals inevitable in use in high-tech missiles and planes. The new F-35 is described as a flying periodic table. Much of the hyperbole about ‘critical metals’ arises from their use by the US military.
To draw the book to a close, Mr. Abraham then looks to the future, trying to work out how we can balance our industrial growth and economic development without irreconcilably damaging our planet. The point is brought home with a visit to rural Jiangxi, China to see the environmental damage and exploitative working conditions of an artisanal rare earths mining facility – making the point that we in the West in many cases have simply outsourced pollution, rather than reduced it. The challenges of recycling minor metals that are found in just a few percent in most industrial products, highlights why we are still reliant on such mines in China to supply these metals. Mr. Abraham then reviews policy-making around the world in relation to the critical metals issue, finding the US and Europe somewhat behind China, Japan and South Korea in their thinking, despite calls for help from the WTO.
In a magnificent final chapter, Mr. Abraham offers some pragmatic advice for policy-makers in the West, free from the usual self-interest that usually accompanies such advocacy (subsidies, patronage, etc.). The answer to securing stable supplies of these metals does not reside with the WTO, but in Western efforts to find and build more rare metal mines, advance our technical know-how of mining and processing them, establish robust and sustainable supply-chains, train more geologists and engineers, improve mining and industrial permitting procedures, and encourage transparency in metals’ markets, whilst avoiding wasteful subsidies, quotas and stockpiles. Simple, practical advice that surely is not too hard to deliver?
Mr. Abraham’s new book, “The Elements of Power”, enters an area of non-fiction that, to date has been poorly-served by the book-writing community. Mr. Abraham has provided an invaluable popular non-fiction text which looks at a quite staggering range of issues in just 288 pages. It is accessible, concise and nuanced, even daring enough to offer some pragmatic advice on how governments and industry can better prepare for a future in which minor metals are bound to play a more significant role in the global economy.