18.1 If You Can’t Grow It, You Have to Mine It

It has been said that “if you can’t grow it, you have to mine it,” meaning that anything we can’t grow we have to extract from Earth in one way or another. This includes water, of course, our most important resource, but it also includes all the other materials that we need to construct things like roads, dams, and bridges, or manufacture things like plates, toasters, and telephones. Even most of our energy resources come from Earth, including uranium and fossil fuels, and much of the infrastructure of this electrical age depends on copper (Figure 18.1).
Figure 20.1 The open pit (background) and waste-rock piles (middle) of the Highland Valley Copper Mine at Logan Lake, British Columbia [Photo by Russell Hartlaub, used with permission]
Figure 18.1 The open pit (background) and waste-rock piles (middle) of the Highland Valley Copper Mine at Logan Lake, British Columbia. Source: Photo by Russell Hartlaub, used with permission. view source

Virtually everything we use every day is made from resources from Earth. For example, let’s look at a tablet computer (Figure 18.2). Most of the case is made of a plastic known as ABS, which is made from either gas or petroleum. Some tablets have a case made from aluminum. The glass of a touch screen is made mostly from quartz combined with smaller amounts of sodium oxide (Na2O), sodium carbonate (Na2CO3), and calcium oxide (CaO). To make it work as a touch screen, the upper surface is coated with indium tin oxide. When you touch the screen you’re actually pushing a thin layer of polycarbonate plastic (made from petroleum) against the coated glass — completing an electrical circuit. The computer is then able to figure out exactly where you touched the screen. Computer processors are made from silica wafers (more quartz) and also include a significant amount of copper and gold. Gold is used because it is a better conductor than copper and doesn’t tarnish the way silver or copper does. Most computers have nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries, which contain nickel, of course, along with cadmium, cobalt, manganese, aluminum, and the rare-earth elements lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and praseodymium. The processor and other electronic components are secured to a circuit board, which is a thin layer of fibreglass sandwiched between copper sheets coated with small amounts of tin and lead. Various parts are put together with steel screws that are made of iron and molybdenum.

Figure 20.2 The main components of a tablet computer [SE, base photograph from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/IPad_Air.png]
Figure 18.2 The main components of a tablet computer. Source: Steven Earle (2015) CC BY 4.0 view source, base photograph source Wikimedia user “Zach Vega” (2013) CC BY-SA 3.0 view source

That’s not everything that goes into a tablet computer, but to make just those components we need a pure-silica sand deposit, a salt mine for sodium, a rock quarry for calcium, an oil well, a gas well, an aluminum mine, an iron mine, a manganese mine, a copper-molybdenum-gold mine, a cobalt-nickel mine, a rare-earth element and indium mine, and a source of energy to transport all of the materials, process them, put them together, and finally transport the computer to your house or the store where you bought it.

Exercise 18.1 Where Does It Come From?

Look around you and find at least five objects (other than a computer or a phone) that have been made from materials that had to be mined, quarried, or extracted from an oil or gas well. Try to identify the materials involved, and think about where they might have come from. This pen is just an example.

Source: Wikimedia user “Pavel Krok~commonswiki” (2005) CC BY-SA 2.5. view source