What Are Technology Metals?

So, just what are “technology metals’? As a relatively new term, coined by Jack Lifton in 2007 and now widely used in the industry, there are probably a number of alternative definitions out there. Here at TMR, we say that the technology metals are those generally-rare metals that are essential for the production of ‘high tech’ devices and engineered systems, such as:

  • The mass production of miniaturized electronics and associated devices;
  • Advanced weapons systems and platforms for national defense;
  • The generation of electricity using ‘alternative’ sources such as solar panels and wind turbines;
  • The storage of electricity using cells and batteries.

There are of course numerous other uses and applications of these metals.

Almost all technology metals are byproducts of the production of base metals, with the exception of the rare earth metals, as a group, and lithium.

Prior to World War II, there were many metals for which there were no practical uses. They were literally laboratory curiosities available only in small quantities, obtained at high costs in both time and money.  For this reason, they were called the ‘minor metals’; they simply had no major uses in contrast to the base metals and even to the precious metals.  It didn’t matter how abundant a metal actually was in nature; if it had no practical uses it simply wouldn’t be produced. Nickel, for example, was a ‘minor metal’ before the commercial development of stainless steel in 1919, when economical methods of mass producing and using stainless steel were undertaken in earnest. Nickel after that rapidly became a high volume production metal.

In the first few years of the 20th Century, malleable tungsten was developed at General Electric and it rapidly displaced all other materials for use as filaments in incandescent light bulbs. Tungsten production increased, and shortly thereafter tungsten steels were developed and used, at first for military armor and armor piercing projectiles. Tungsten carbide for cutting tools soon after that revolutionized precision machining, just in time to make mass produced engines a reality. Tungsten, a minor metal in 1900, became by 1918 an important industrial metal, and had the designation ‘technology metal’ existed in 1918, tungsten would surely have been recognized as such at that point.

As an example of a more well-known metal transitioning from ‘minor’ to ‘major’ status, look at the late 19th Century  minor metal aluminum, which was used to cap the Washington Monument in 1886, as a symbol of America’s wealth. Aluminum was then more expensive than gold. Keep in mind that only a lunatic or a visionary would have predicted in 1886, that common people would cook with aluminum pots and pans less than a century later, and that even in 1919 the idea of nickel stainless steel kitchen appliances for the masses would have been considered fantasy nonsense.

World War II transformed a sleepy academic discipline, the study of the physical properties of all of the metals, into modern metallurgy with its emphasis on developing end uses for metals based not just on their properties as structural materials but even more important, on their newly categorized electrical, electronic, and magnetic properties for use in technology.

Fifty years ago, it was unclear which, if any of the then minor metals would be most useful for practical mass producible technologies.  We were then only just discovering and, actually, determining which of the electronic and magnetic properties of the chemical elements were important to our civilization’s needs and desires.  Prior to World War I, only the structural, decorative, simple electrical transmission and storage, and monetary metals were well known even to the metallurgists of the day. The last naturally occurring metal to be discovered was rhenium and that was only in 1924. What no one knew between the wars was that it would be important to know which, if any, of the little used minor metals could in fact be produced in significant volume at a significant yearly rate of production. There was no need for any such information, certainly not in academia, where most of these studies would be then undertaken. The equation was simple; no use equals no demand and therefore no attempt to supply in quantity.

World War II was the single most important driver for the transformation of the minor metals into the technology metals. Economics as a limitation to innovation was put aside and national security became the only driver for the development of the technologies for jet and rocket engines, radio and radar, electronic computing, and super weapons.

A glittering galaxy of physicists and innovative engineers, perhaps a once in a thousand years gathering of intellects, told the chemical engineers who specialized in metallurgy, which metals they critically needed in abundance and the world’s governments told all of them not to consider economics in their quest to produce them. The chemical engineers then began systematically to learn how to find, refine, and mass produce the formerly minor metals, now desperately needed for war technology. Among others this lead to the production for the first time, in every case, of large quantities of previously never-before-seen ultra pure silicon and germanium, as well as high purity gallium and indium, uranium and thorium, and mixed, and some individually separated,  rare earth metals and, just after the war, of lithium.

After the hot part of World War II ended, a 50 year long Cold War immediately ensued, during which the postwar uneconomic overproduction of minor metals for the new technologies continued, and the increasingly surplus production was diverted to high volume civilian consumer uses, spun off from technologies developed for the military on a cost plus basis. This was the seeding of our modern ‘Age of Technology.’ Its original economics were synthetic; the critical materials for modern technologies were being produced from operations and sources the development of which had been fully subsidized, in an unprecedented open-ended hand out by the war economy, both cold and hot.

So, at the same time, today, that we have become totally dependent on the technology metals for the mass production of necessary consumer goods such as miniaturized electronics, large scale television and cinema displays, electronic data processing, and personal communications,. i.e., our way of life, we are also critically dependent on technology metals for our national security in the form of secure communications, weapons guidance, surveillance, and battlefield superiority. The problem is that the bulk of the technology metals is now used for civilian production and the military instead of catalyzing the supply and taking a priority position, is now simply another customer.

In the table below we list those metals that we define as ‘rare’, by defining rare as ‘produced annually in a quantity of 25,000 metric tonnes or less.’ Only the most obscure of these rare metals, such as the rare earths holmium, ytterbium, and lutetium, can still be defined as minor metals, because even today they only have minor uses since they are and will remain too rare ever to be available in sufficient quantity for mass production of a technology.

Estimated global production of various metals in 2009
[technology metals are in red: rare metals are in bold]
Sources: US Geological Survey, British Geological Survey
MetalProduction [tonnes]

The technology metals are almost all rare metals, and they are almost all produced as byproducts of base or common metals.

The problem with the technology metals is that our supply of them, or more specifically our maximum rates of production of them, is critically dependent mostly upon our production of base metals. In the case of the rare earth metals, mined as a group, the key supply issue is the complex metallurgy of the separation of the individual rare earths from each other; for the case of lithium, a key issue is the length of time that primary concentration takes. The rare earths as a group are actually not rare, based on the admittedly arbitrary definition above, though individual rare earths certainly are.

The rare earths and lithium are today the subject of much discussion, because they have become the most visible technology metals.  The definition of a rare metal is somewhat fluid; a few of today’s rare metals may not always be so. Lithium, for example, is on the cusp of being struck from the list of rare metals, because of its use in electrical storage. But it has turned out that once a minor metal becomes a technology metal, it will never again be a minor metal.