Beyond base metals

Minor metals are major players in high-tech innovation

Typically the word “minor” refers to things of lesser importance, size or degree. Minor metals, however, are far from inferior—they are major players in a wide range of specialty, high-tech industries and used to create alloys with desirable mechanical properties, including deformability and corrosion resistance.

Minor metals have a relatively low production volume compared to base metals, a term that refers to common metals, such as Steel, Iron, Aluminum, Copper and Brass, that are used in commercial and industrial applications. Many minor metals also are extracted as byproducts of base metal mining.

Classifying a broad range of elements under an umbrella term, like “minor metals” is tricky, though. As technologies evolve and new uses are found for these metals, production increases exponentially. Traditionally, minor metals have not been traded on the London Metal Exchange, but because of their increasing popularity and use, certain elements in this category now appear on the LME.

Minor metals can come in various forms—ingots, powders, chips, granules, sticks and flakes. Many of them have unique characteristics. Soft, silvery-colored Gallium has a low melting point and is used in electronics and as an agent to produce alloys that melt at low temperatures. Titanium is strong, low density and highly corrosion resistant, making it ideal for aircraft, automotive and other applications where light weight and high strength are necessary. Cobalt is magnetic with a high melting point and is used in electroplating, in special alloys and in metallic cathodes for rechargeable batteries. And Silicon is found in many alloys, as well as in photovoltaic solar cells, transistors and rectifiers.

Other metals classified as minor metals include Antimony, Lithium, Beryllium, Chromium, Magnesium, Zirconium, Niobium and Tellurium. Because minor metals are so diverse, they are often further grouped by their end uses: electronic metals; power metals, which are used in photovoltaic solar cells and wind turbines; structural metals; and performance metals.

As people around the world become more knowledgeable about how material supply affects innovation, finding a way to ensure demand is met becomes a crucial issue. Because many minor metals are byproducts of ore mining, scaling up production in response to demand can be difficult. This introduces risk into the supply chain and can stymie further development in electronics and green technologies. Efficient material recycling can assist with supply stability, and researchers are working on discovering better ways to recycle materials so the minor metals are recovered, properly categorized and recorded.

Although minor metals start out as the leftover materials that result after other mining processes have been completed, their unique characteristics have allowed them to carve out important niches in both the high-tech and alloying markets. Industries like automotive and aerospace are continually searching for new high-strength, lightweight materials, and consumers continue to clamor for renewable technologies and small, high-powered electronic devices. As a result, future demand for minor metals will remain strong.

Brooklyn, New York-based Belmont Metals, a diversified nonferrous metals and alloy manufacturer, can help customers with inquiries about minor metals—both in pure form and as alloying elements.