Greenfields Research

Blog Header Image

Elements of Power by David Abraham: Invaluable intro to the ‘critical metals’

- By: John P Sykes
Posted in: Blog, Book Reviews, Commodities, Exploration, Mineral Economics, Mineral Policy, Mining, Recommended


Book Review: The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

By David S. Abraham

Amongst the flurry of books over the last few years focusing on the geopolitics of metals and mining, and in particular the so-called ‘critical metals’ David Abraham’s effort “The Elements of Power” promises a less-hyperbolic and more pragmatic approach to the subject, even offering some useful advice to policy-makers responsible for regulating this sector. In his own words: “My fear is that a lack of attention to and understanding… of the Rare Metal Age…, will limit our prosperity and undermine our environment. My hope is that this book… will serve as a rallying call to inspire a new generation to learn more about the ingredients of our gadgets, guns and sustainable future.”

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, David 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 David 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.  We are introduced to a cast of esoteric metals including 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.