USGS - Science for a changing world

Minerals: They’re Elementary!

This Science Feature can be found at: http://www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/minerals-theyre-elementary/

From the Indium in your flatscreen TVs to the Gallium in your lights, you use hundreds of mineral commodities each day, likely without even realizing it.

Yes, we need to admit it: minerals are a major player in our everyday life, in the cars we drive, the electronics on which we work and play, in nearly everything we do and use throughout the day.

All That Glitters:

Production level in the Ray porphyry copper mine, AZ.

When you think of minerals, the first ones that likely pop into your head are the precious metals and gemstones: gold, silver, diamonds, etc. These minerals are indeed very valuable and well-known. But, they have uses other than jewelry. For instance, gold is a required element in computers and in jet engines. Diamonds, in addition to being a highly-sought after gemstone, are one of the most versatile engineering materials because their supreme toughness and durability makes them the cutting material of choice in many industrial operations. Learn more about gold and diamonds!

Can’t Live Without

The previous minerals are, indeed, important and necessary, but there are also lesser-known minerals we take for granted that power our modern conveniences. For example, if you’re reading this article on a smart phone or other mobile device, then you’re indebted to a series of elements called “rare earths.”

Rare earths are a series of 17 elements, with unusual names like Yttrium, Scandium and the Lanthanides. They’re called rare earths because, although they are abundant in the soil, they’re hard to find in concentrations that are profitable to mine. These elements, though, are necessary for smart phones and mobile devices because they can yield rare-earth magnets, which allow vital computing components to be miniaturized. Find out more about rare earths!

Guess Again: The Most Valuable Mineral

Up until the recession, the most valuable mineral by total value produced in the United States was not what you’d expect. Nope — it wasn’t gold, silver or platinum. Instead, it was crushed stone, mostly used in construction. Although each individual unit is fairly low in cost, billions of tons of crushed stone are used each year for building and repairing roads, buildings, houses, and other projects. It adds up!  Find out more about crushed stone!

Following the Money

Because  minerals are so important, USGS has placed a priority on researching and tracking the flow of nearly 90 mineral commodities important to the economy and national security of the United States. In fact, USGS issues an annual mineral commodity report, tracking the reserves, production, refining and use of these minerals in the United States and about 180 other countries. It’s called the Mineral Commodity Summaries, and the 2012 edition was just published.

Each year, USGS calculates US net reliance on imports for 70 mineral commodities. This graph shows these mineral commodities in decreasing order of reliance on imports, with the countries from which we get the majority of that mineral on the right-hand side.

In addition to the Mineral Commodity Summaries and Mineral Yearbooks, USGS mineral commodity specialists track these commodities and analyze market trends in light of their expertise with each mineral. A full list of the commodities can be found here.

Visit the USGS Mineral Resources Program

Visit the USGS National Minerals Information Center

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