Where Do 3D Printing Metals Come from?
With an understanding that something doesn’t just come from nothing, we explored the base materials used for the creation of plastics used in the 3D printing industry.
Similarly, the metals that make up 3D printing don’t appear out of thin air. Instead, they are physical resources on a finite planet. While all metals are limited in supply, some are far rarer and their use will ultimately result in supply issues.
We’ve already covered how metal 3D printing materials are processed into printable powders and the variety of metals in use by the industry today. But, where do all of our 3D printing metals come from? We will look at the world’s supply of some of the most prominent or important metals in the 3D printing industry, relying on the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for our numbers. Generally, we won’t list every country from which minerals are produced, but just those with the highest production rates.
Titanium is one of the most important metals in the 3D printing industry. It is seventh-most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, found in 784 different igneous rocks, but the two with economic importance, rutile and ilmenite, are difficult to find in high concentrations. The countries producing the most ilmenite are South Africa (1.3 million tons), Australia (900,000 tons), China (800,000 tons), and Mozambique (550,000 tons). The highest rutile production comes from Australia (450,000 tons), Senegal (160,000 tons), Ukraine (90,000 tons) and Kenya (80,000 tons).
With total titanium reserves in ilmenite and rutile estimated to be over 930 million tons, Australia has the highest ilmenite reserves at 250 million tons, followed by China with 220 million tons, and Australia also has the highest rutile reserves at 29 million tons, followed by Kenya at 13 million. In comparison, the U.S. has combined ilmenite and rutile reserves of 2 million tons, just a little more than Vietnam and slightly less than Ukraine.
Aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust and the second most widely used metal globally, after iron. Because of its chemical reactivity, finding aluminum as a native metal is rare. Instead, it is most often extracted from the sedimentary rock bauxite. World bauxite deposits are estimated to be between 55 and 75 billion tons, with 32 percent in Africa, 23 percent in Oceania, 21 percent in South America and the Caribbean, 18 percent in Asia and 6 percent throughout the rest of the globe.
As of 2017, Australia was the largest miner of bauxite, with 83 million tons produced that year, followed by China at 68 million tons. Guinea has the largest reserves at 7.4 billion tons, followed by Australia with 6 billion and Vietnam with 3.7 billion. The U.S. did not list how much bauxite it produced and has the least amount in reserves at 20 million tons.
Steel is an alloy made up of iron and carbon. The fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust, 98 percent of mined iron is used to make steel. In order of rocks and minerals with the highest iron oxide content are magnetite, hematite, goethite, limonite and siderite. Ores with more than 60 percent magnetite or hematite, known as “natural” or “direct shipping” ores, can be placed directly into a blast furnace to create “pig iron”, using coking coal and limestone. Since it is too brittle for use due to higher levels of carbon, pig iron is continually reprocessed to create steel, with additional elements added in to produce different grades.
The largest producer of iron ore in 2017 was Australia with 545 million tons, followed by Brazil (280 million tons), China (210 million tons), and India (120 million tons). The U.S. produced 28 million tons, more than Canada, but less than Iran. Australia has the highest iron reserves at 24 million tons, followed by Russia (14 million tons) and Brazil (12 million tons).
While steel can be made from iron ore, it is also one of the most-recycled materials on the planet, with a recycling rate of 60 percent globally.
While cobalt can be extracted from its ores, cobaltite, erythrite, glaucodot and skutterudite, it is primarily produced as a byproduct of nickel and copper mining. Unlike steel/iron, cobalt is a rare metal.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) produces 63 percent of the world’s cobalt, with 64 million tons produced in 2017. For a comparison, the next highest production, from Russia, comes in at only 5.6 million tons. Total world reserves of cobalt are estimated to be only 7.1 billion tons, with about half (3.5 billion tons) held by the DRC.
Nickel is very rare, mined most often from laterite and sulfide deposits. In 2017, the largest producer of nickel was Indonesia at 400,000 tons, followed by the Philippines (230,000 tons), New Caledonia (210,000 tons) and Canada (210,000 tons). Total world reserves of the metal stand at 74 million tons, with the largest located in Australia (19 million tons) and Brazil (12 million). The U.S. has just 130,000 tons in reserves and produced 23,000 tons in 2017.
Copper can be found in very small quantities bound up with other valuable minerals within the following ores, in order of greatest copper content: cuprite, chalcocite, digenite, covellite, bornite, malachite, azurite, tennantite, dioptase, chrysocolla, chalcopyrite and tetrahedrite. Chile is the largest producer of copper, with 5.3 million tons produced in 2017, followed by Peru (2.4 million tons), China (1.9 million) and the U.S. (1.3 million). Chile has the largest reserves at 170 million tons, followed by Australia (88 million), Peru (81 million), Mexico (46 million) and the U.S. (45 million).
Gold is most often found as a native metal, usually with silver and often with other minerals like quarts and pyrite. Historically, South Africa was the largest producer of gold until 2006, with its peak occurring during apartheid in the 1970s. Now, the biggest supplier of gold is China (440,000 tons), followed by Australia (300,000 tons), Russia (255,000 tons) and the U.S. (245,000 tons). Total reserves are estimated to be about 54 million tons, with Australia (9.8 million) maintaining the most, followed by South Africa (6 million), Russia (5.5 million) and the U.S. (3 million).
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