IT cannot be repeated too often (for it is a fundamental fact which every intelligent citizen should know) that each of the metals and useful minerals occurs chiefly in certain spots or restricted areas of the earth's surface and, in this regard, each metal is a law unto itself. It cannot be too often recalled that the astonishing development of mechanistic civilization, which has been progressing with ever-increasing speed for the last century, is built upon the use of the metals and useful minerals as its foundation, without which it would totter and slump. Third, it is a matter of fundamental importance to realize, and not to forget, that many of the metals and minerals are definitely exhaustible, and each in a different degree; and, fourth, that these primitive earth-stuffs, essential for our tremendous harnessing of natural powers and for our fabrication of marvelous machinery, are in a class different from all other materials utilized by man, because once mined and dissipated by use they can never be replaced.

In proportion as the richer supplies of metals are diminished, balances of industry and trade will be disturbed and centers and types of civilization will be altered.

Metals and minerals within national boundaries do not conform to the law of supply and demand, although this fact has not been grasped even by many competent engineers. No matter how high a price might be offered for a considerable production of tin from the continent of North America, or of nickel from the continent of Europe, these metals would not be forthcoming. No matter how pressing the demand in industry, brought on by new uses, for a vastly greater production than the present one of mercury or of selenium, the whole world would probably find itself unable, regardless of the price offered, to respond to it.

Mineral problems are intrinsically world problems -- that is to say, considering the political relations of the earth's inhabitants, international problems. Indeed, there is no study which so vividly emphasizes the essential community of interests and interdependence of all nations. The United States may cultivate rubber in the Philippines, but it cannot develop tin there. Its only guarantee for the supply of necessary metals and minerals is the permanency, freedom and protection of international trade.

Among the minerals not so prominent in the public eye as coal, iron and petroleum, but essential for modern industry, are the lesser steel-making minerals, technically known as the ferro-alloys: manganese, chrome, nickel, tungsten, and a longer list of less important ones. Is it not generally conceived that iron and coal are indispensable for a great country to possess or acquire by trade? But the machinery age is founded not upon iron, but upon steel, and these so-called lesser minerals are essential in the manufacture of steel. That fact may change the whole economic and military situation for a country. To take an important example nearest to us, the United States is fortunate in possessing vast supplies of coal and iron, but is naturally and permanently deficient in its supplies of these essential auxiliary steel-making minerals -- manganese, chrome, nickel, tungsten, and so on. It possesses a certain amount of these minerals, but in far too small a proportion for its needs. It has to import them, and will have to do so in the future as it has done in the past. Therefore one of its economic problems, which during the war became a military problem, is where it shall find such supplies and how it shall keep the trade lanes open through mutual interest, diplomacy and fair treatment, or in an emergency by force.

Let me first introduce manganese and explain its unassuming importance. Manganese is used in the manufacture of all steel, in the proportion of about 14 pounds of metallic manganese per ton of steel. Nearly 95 percent of all the manganese consumed is used in this way. Manganese is not utilized in this case as an alloy, but as a remover of deleterious oxygen and, to some extent, of sulphur, in the steel-making process. No satisfactory substitute for this process has been discovered, so that for the production of good steel in adequate quantities manganese is indispensable. The use of larger quantities of maganese produces a specially tough steel (manganese steel), the manganese now functioning as an alloy, whence its designation as a "ferro-alloy."

Chrome is one of the most important steel-hardening materials, and as an alloy, in percentages varying from 1 to 5, it imparts special toughness to steels. Chromium steels are used for armor plate, armor-piercing projectiles, machine tools, safes, springs, and similar essential purposes. Chrome also has its important so-called chemical uses, especially in tanning leather.

Nickel is chiefly utilized in manufacturing of steels designed for special purposes, where unusual tensile strength is required. Ordinary nickel steels carry about 3.5 percent nickel. About 60 percent of the entire production of nickel goes in these ways. Nickel-chromium steels are employed in the making of armor plate. In nature, nickel occurs alloyed with iron in the meteorites, those "shooting stars" which blaze into our atmosphere from the unknown outer spaces and are occasionally found embedded in the earth. Investigators, sawing such meteorites for scientific investigation, found the iron extraordinarily difficult to cut, and on analysis found nickel alloyed with it. Here, indeed, was a message to man from the stars. This led to the artificial manufacture of nickel-steel and stimulated the whole investigation of the useful effect of other ferro-alloys, which are still the subject of continued experiment.

Tungsten finds its most important use in the manufacture of high-speed machine tools -- that is, for tools which are driven by machinery; and no satisfactory substitute has been discovered. Its employment for this purpose is as standard "as the use of yeast in bread."[i] Although certain other alloys, such as cobalt, chromium, molybdenum, nickel and zirconium, in various combinations have been used in steels for certain phases of machine-tool work, they have been unable to affect the demand for tungsten steel. Since our modern industry, in peace or war, is dependent for its maintenance on machine-made products, it is evident that tungsten is another metal without which the whole tense and highly-geared system would be disrupted.

Of the minor but still highly important ferro-alloy metals, vanadium also is chiefly of service in the manufacture of steel. Its value where great toughness and torsional strength are required led to its use in steel which has to stand heavy wear and tear, such as automobile parts, gears, transmission shafts and gun barrels. The vanadium content in steels made for these purposes is 0.1 to 0.4 percent. Vanadium differs from tungsten in having a very beneficial effect not only on tool but also on structural steel.[ii] Chromium-vanadium steels also are utilized in automobiles.

With this slight outline, showing the pivotal importance of these steel-making metals, let us consider the sources of supply, taking the United States, the greatest steel-making country in the world and the one with the largest resources of iron and coal, as a frequent basis of reference.

Manganese is a fairly common and widespread metal, yet it occurs, in large and commercial amounts, chiefly in certain very definitely restricted parts of the world. For the last quarter of a century India and Russia have been the chief sources of supply, with a considerable production from Brazil, and a very moderate production from all the rest of the world. A new source of large supply, not yet thoroughly tested, is said to be the Gold Coast of Africa. The production from the United States, and, indeed, from all North America, is ordinarily trifling, almost negligible[iii] (Fig. 1). This is due to the ineluctable fact that nature has distributed manganese in different areas from those in which she has segregated iron.

The second greatest steel-producing field in the world -- the Alsace-Lorraine field in Europe -- lies under the same conditions. Steel-makers in both centers, and in lesser ones, must buy and transport their manganese from afar. There is no steel industry in Brazil or in the Russian Caucasus, whence the main manganese supply comes, or on the Gold Coast; nor more than a budding industry in India. The manganese supplies of the world, although distantly scattered, are more than adequate for the demand; and thus monopoly by any one of these areas is not feasible.

Steel works in the United States, for example, consume annually, on the average, in the various grades of manganese ferro-alloys made, upward of 200,000 tons of metallic manganese in the manufacture of upward of 30,000,000 tons of steel; but the domestic production of manganese for this purpose, despite the encouragement of a protecting tariff, is so small as to be comparatively negligible -- although manganese for chemical purposes (dry batteries) is coming more than formerly from the west. In 1925 the United States imported monthly about 20,000 tons of high-grade manganese ore and some 10,000 tons of ferro-manganese, the chief alloy of iron and manganese, used in steel-making.

It is due to this necessity for outside supplies that American interests in 1925 negotiated with the Soviet Government and secured control of the Russian Caucasus manganese field, which is being actively developed with adequate American engineering, talent and capital; and it is likely that in this way the former great production of Russian manganese, cut off by the World War and the subsequent industrial débâcle, will soon be resumed.

During the World War not only were manganese supplies for the United States from Russia stopped, but also, through lack of shipping, most of the supply from India. Under these conditions the production and importation of manganese from Brazil was stimulated, and the sea lane between the two countries became an essential one to maintain.

There remains to be considered how much high price and imperative demand may be able to offset natural poverty in a metal like manganese, in countries where nature has bestowed it sparsely. There are multitudinous, usually small, deposits of high-grade manganese ore in the United States, and during the World War, due to the stimulus of government demand and high prices, an intensive production was obtained. The absolute price of manganese ore rose in 1918 to nearly six times the pre-war price of 1913, while the relative price, based on comparison with the general commodity price index, exactly doubled in this period.[iv] With such urgent demand, the United States, which previously had produced less than 1 percent of its total high-grade manganese consumption, produced in 1918, at the war's close, nearly 24 percent of the high-grade manganese ore consumed. But experience showed that this was a killing pace, which would have been impossible to keep up, and perhaps impossible to repeat. The Manganese Committee, appointed by the two chief organizations of American mining engineers, found that at least a third of the manganese thus produced was at a financial loss. This committee is of the opinion that a further increase of 50 percent over the war prices would be needed if important emergency tonnages of manganese should again be required. Any such stimulation, moreover, would be of temporary effect, similar to the injection of strong drugs into a dying man.

There is no escape, therefore, in the long run, from the necessity of man and of human industry adjusting themselves to the conditions laid down by nature when the world was formed. A Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives declared, not long since, that the indomitable will and enterprise of American citizens could produce at home all the manganese required. And this gospel produced, to reinforce enterprise, a considerable protective tariff on manganese ore. The geological facts appear, however, to be more compelling than the tariff, for the United States' post-war output of manganese has shrunk to insignificant proportions.

This lesson is reinforced by an examination of the distribution of the other steel-making metals (ferro-alloys). The vast steel industries of the United States require in normal times more than one-third of the world consumption of chrome. The natural form of chrome is the mineral chromite, the oxide of chrome, the crude ore containing from 40 to 55 percent of chromic oxide; and in this form of crude ore the United States consumed, in 1913, the last normal pre-war year commonly used as a basis of comparison, some 65,000 tons, while England consumed about 25,000 tons, France 35,000 tons, Germany 30,000 tons, and other countries much smaller amounts; but in 1920, the record year, the United States alone absorbed nearly 153,000 tons, and in 1924 and 1925 nearly the same, imports in 1925 having been about 145,000 tons.

The natural chromite supplies of the United States are relatively unimportant and inadequate. There was a time, to be sure, about the middle of the nineteenth century, when Maryland was the principal producer of the meagre supplies of chrome which the world then demanded; but these limited deposits seem long since to have been practically exhausted. The full strength of the chromite reserves of the United States was brought out by the World War. They are mainly in the Pacific coastal region, and from there under stress of high prices and war stimulus a surprising response was made. Thus, while in 1913 chromite production in the United States had sunk to 259 tons, or 0.16 percent of the world's production, it rose in 1918 to over 83,000 tons, or 29 percent of the world's output. With the war's close it slumped to its old position. In 1922, the United States produced 252 tons, or 0.19 percent of the world's total; and a protective tariff, which was placed on chrome and chrome ores by believers in the magic of this sort of treatment, has proved to have no effect on the situation whatever (Fig. 2). It has been estimated by the Chrome Committee, appointed by the two principal mining engineering societies of the United States, that we may have, in all, ultimately available, enough for some twelve years or more of normal domestic demand; but the grade and cost of production is such that this is not now being drawn upon. With the 1925 consumption, which in the long run is likely to increase rather than diminish, this estimate of ultimate supply would have to be reduced to about nine years. If the tariff, so mistakenly imposed, were effective, its only effect would be the speedy exhaustion of this reserve which should be held intact for emergency use.

Chromite was discovered in Turkey by an American geologist, and about 1870 Turkey began to supplant the United States (Maryland) as the principal chrome producing country. Little ore is now being mined in Turkey (1.96 percent of the world's total in 1922), since Turkey has been supplanted by New Caledonia and India, and later by Rhodesia. In 1921 Rhodesia furnished about 36 percent of the world production, India 28 percent, and New Caledonia 23 percent, other sources being scattered and small. Rhodesia, which began producing largely about 1910, has now become increasingly the chief source of the world's supply, for in 1922 it supplied over 65 percent of the whole, and about the same amount in 1923, 1924, and 1925.

It is thus seen that in the distribution of chromite as well as manganese, nature did not assign the chief supplies to the chief possessors of iron and coal, who were to need these ferro-alloy minerals in steel-making. During the World War, with Atlantic shipments interrupted, the United States drew its imports from Brazil and from New Caledonia. But the steel industries of both America and Europe are now drawing the 240,000 tons of chrome (chromite) annually consumed, mainly, as above stated, from Rhodesia, India and New Caledonia -- though Greece, and in the last two years, Cuba, have yielded significant amounts. Cuba, in 1925, supplied the Bethlehem Steel Company with 30,000 tons.

Nickel is a metal more generally known than manganese and chrome, although industrially not so strategically important; but its major use in special steels is not so well understood. Nickel is supposed by many geophysicists and geochemists to be a most important constituent of the inner portion of the earth globe. Based upon the analogy of meteorites, mentioned above, the known specific gravity of the earth and other physical data, the conclusion is generally accepted that the bulk of the inner earth consists of an alloy of iron and nickel. But at the earth's surface the concentration of nickel is more eccentric than that of any other metal. Although nickel occurs in relatively small quantities in many localities, the bulk -- 80 percent or more -- of the world's supply comes from a single mining district in Ontario, Canada, where it is produced by only two mining companies. And, strangely enough, almost at the exact antipodes, in New Caledonia, is the only other producing center of importance. The ultimate nickel reserves of Ontario have been estimated at 3,000, 000 tons; those of New Caledonia at 160,000. Norway, Sweden, Cuba and many other countries possess some nickel ore; but the Ontario deposit contains far more than all the known ore of the rest of the world combined. The output from this district, limited only by the demand, was between 35,000 and 40,000 tons of metal in 1923 and 1924; and, at this rate, it will be seen, there is a seventy-five year reserve (Fig. 3). The world will not in our day go short of nickel.

Turning now to tungsten, indispensable ferro-alloy for high speed tool steels, the United States again has supplies, but they are inadequate. The tonnage of this metal now consumed is not so large as its industrial importance would suggest, the United States, for example, using under post-war conditions annually between 3,500 and 4,000 tons of ore concentrates containing 60 percent tungsten oxide; but under World War conditions, in 1918, it was using tungsten at the rate of 20,000 tons. These figures represent approximately half the whole world's consumption for the corresponding years. In 1924 the world production was probably less than 6,000 tons[v] (Fig. 4).

As to the sources of supply, these, unlike nickel, are scattered widely in the world. Under the World War stimulus, in 1918, the United States production rose to over 6,000 tons. Most of the world's supply comes from China, where production is cheap; but this is not necessarily a permanent condition. In 1921 Asia, principally China, furnished 4,300 tons out of a total of 4,500 produced in the world. In general, the largest tungsten fields are grouped around the Pacific Ocean. In 1918, 92 percent of the world's tungsten came from the countries bordering the Pacific -- 61 percent from the western side: Asia, Australia, and Oceania; and 31 percent from North and South America. The Iberian Peninsula, in Europe--Portugal and Spain -- is the only considerable tungsten-bearing area outside this Pan-Pacific region; from this quarter came, in 1918, over half of the 8 percent of the total world production which was obtained outside the Pacific fields.

Under all conditions, the United States has been a large importer of tungsten ores, although her position in this regard, in case of emergency, is not at all helpless. A heavy duty is stimulating domestic production so that, in 1925, an output of over 1,000 tons met something like a quarter of the domestic demand.

Vanadium is of recent use in the United States. In 1906 the consumption was only 750 pounds, but it rose to 1,064,000 pounds in 1923, when the world's consumption was 1,292,000 pounds. The excellent report of the sub-committee on vanadium of the Mining and Metallurgical Society of America and the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (1925) estimates that by 1930 the world will need 2,600,000 pounds, and that the present known resources of the world will suffice for thirty or thirty-five years. The chief sources of supply are from Peru, in South America, from the United States, and from southwest Africa. Of the estimated world ultimate supply of 94,000,000 pounds, 70,000,000 are accredited to Peru, 15,000,000 to the United States, 7,000,000 to South Africa, and 2,000,000 to Mexico. The metal consumed in the United States comes almost entirely from Peru, from mines under American control.

To repeat what has been noted in the above brief summaries, it is apparent that the most important steel industries of the world, clustered about the great and cheaply mined deposits of coal and iron, must draw their minor steel-making minerals mainly from distant countries. The United States, Germany, Great Britain and France (with Belgium) are the great steel-producing nations. Two iron-ore fields -- the Lake Superior region, in the United States, and the Lorraine region of the Franco-German border region -- have for years produced more than half of the world's supply. But the greater part of manganese, used in steel-making practice and in alloys, is brought from many distant sources -- from India, Russia and Brazil; most of the chrome used in special steels from India, New Caledonia and Rhodesia; the tungsten chiefly from Asia, especially from China; the nickel from Canada; and vanadium also from special regions, such as Peru.

There is a tendency, when steel-making nationals do not find a supply of necessary ferro-alloy minerals in their own country, to acquire mines abroad, and thus insure a fixed and steady supply, which will be interrupted only in case of war so violent as to disrupt ocean traffic. Thus the vanadium deposits of Peru, the manganese deposits of Russia, the nickel deposits of Canada, and chrome deposits of Cuba have become controlled by American companies. In its importance to national industry, this form of commercial control is secondary only to that of political control; but peaceful relations not only with the foreign countries directly involved, but with those patrolling the seas, are necessary for its permanent efficacy.

The great desideratum of universal peace finds here one of its most practical arguments. But in the meanwhile, it is of interest to note that the mining conducted by the Anglo-Saxon nations -- the United States and the British Empire -- produces the bulk of the world's mineral supplies. The United States leads in coal and iron, with England second in coal; in petroleum, the United States leads, with Great Britain second; in copper and lead, the United States is first, and Great Britain second; in zinc, the United States first, with the Silesian (Polish-German) fields representing the second greatest center; in silver, the United States first, Great Britain second; in sulphur, the United States first, and Italy second; in rock phosphates, the United States leads. The United States also leads in the production and control of vanadium and molybdenum. The British Empire has chief control of tin, nickel, tungsten, asbestos and chromite, and is the largest producer also of gold. "Only a few minerals remain," as I wrote some years ago, "in which most of the industry is not in the hands of either the United States or England." Chief among these are the Franco-German potash fields and the Chilean nitrate deposits. These two Anglo-Saxon nations also have the power to keep open the lanes of ocean commerce.

Here is one of the strong practical arguments in favor of an Anglo-American understanding, at least as to the free development and trade movement of mineral supplies throughout all the earth; and it might form the beginning of a much stronger economic league embracing other nations. It would indeed appear over-optimistic, at a time when the world is manifestly controlled by economic motives and conditions, to base excessive hope on treaties and leagues which ignore the subject of economic cooperation. Only arrangements based upon common economic interest and mutual material helpfulness will prove stable. Of such a nature would be a recognition of the free movements of trade in the essential mineral commodities.

[i]F. L. Hess, "Political and Commercial Geology," p. 142.

[ii]R. B. Moore, "Political and Commercial Geology," p. 163.

[iii]Fig. 1 is taken from the (1925) report of the Manganese Committee of the two chief American societies of engineering.

[iv]Report of the Manganese Committee, Mining and Metallurgical Society of America, and American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, 1925.

[v]F. L. Hess, in "Engineering and Mining Journal-Press," Jan. 17, 1925.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now