If you are reading this blog, the device that you are viewing it on is most probably made of materials that have come from all over the globe. To name just some of these materials, you’ve got Copper from Chile, Cobalt from Congo, Tin from Indonesia, Vanadium from Kazakhstan, Titanium from Australia, Ruthenium from Russia, and Beryllium from Utah. In a way it’s poetic. The very same device capable of connecting us to people all over the world is also made up of natural resources from all over the world. Here are a few interesting stories about how these materials got into the device you’re using right now.
One essential material in your device is Cobalt which keeps batteries in desktops, tablets, and phones from catching on fire. It comes from the mines of Southern Congo. These mines hold nearly half of the world’s known Cobalt. As batteries have become more essential over the past few decades, many Congolese people migrated down to this formerly sparsely populated area in search of opportunity. Today Southern Congo has a population of half a million, most of it in the city of Kolwezi. If you google map search the city of Kolwezi, and use the satellite view, you will see that to the West of the city is a whole area of dug-up earth bigger than the city itself. In fact, residents of the city have reportedly found cobalt right under their very own homes. The entire city is a way of life literally based on Cobalt.
Another way of life that is based on an IT material can be found in the country of Indonesia. Indonesia is the number one exporter of tin which is used for printed circuits and computer chips. Recently, however, the tin mines of Indonesia have been running short and Indonesians have now turned to the sea where 5 times as much tin can be found. Indonesia has a poor rural population, yet Indonesians are eager to take advantage of the export that their country has by any means necessary. This presents an unusual scene. On the Southern shores of Indonesia, it is now very common to see beat-up wooden platoon boats hauling out heavy mining equipment on a mission to find tin. The machines contain 60-70 foot long pipes that can suck up sand from the sea bed which is apparently rich with black tin ore. The situation has caused conflict with the fishermen on these shores since the mining of tin ore disrupts fishing patterns. Yet more Indonesian miners will be coming out to the water as the land mines become even more scarce. These two groups will have to work out agreements to continue their enterprises.
Beryllium is a rare metal usually found within other substances. Once extracted, it can be made into beryllium copper which is highly conductive and therefore helpful in IT circuitry as well as many other electronic applications. Most of the world’s supply of Beryllium comes from Utah just Southwest of the Great Salt Lake and is usually obtained through the minerals, beryl and bertrandite. While helpful for electronics, it is also hazardous to the lungs if inhaled. Therefore, in both the mining of beryl and bertrandite, the process of extracting beryllium, and the making of it into beryllium copper, people must exercise extra caution. Once beryllium copper is manufactured into an electronic device, it is completely safe. No need to worry about your cell phone being toxic to you!
Nearly every person on the planet has a computer and a mobile device so you can bet that the demand for the materials that go into them is high. As long as the demand is high, people will do whatever they can to get their hands on it. As we have seen, there are entire societies built on the harvesting and making of these materials. People will seize opportunity from these materials despite the many dangers, even if the materials themselves are hazardous. Yet life goes on, and human ingenuity continues to find ways to make it all possible.