Essential Materials for City Construction
From the buildings around us to the sidewalks we walk on, sand, steel, and cement are an important foundation for all urbanization. Every year, the world produces an immense amount of all three materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments around the world.
Using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, this visualization shows the steel, sand, and cement produced in 2020, to help put in perspective the amount of raw materials we produce and ultimately consume every year.
The Concrete Facts of Cement
Cement is the indispensable glue that binds together the materials that make up concrete highways, sidewalks, and buildings.
With concrete being the world’s most consumed material (beaten only by water), it’s no wonder that the world produced 4.1 billion tonnes of cement in 2020.
2020 Cement Production by Country
|Rank||Country||Cement Production (in million tonnes)|
|#4||🇺🇸 United States||90|
|#12||🇰🇷 South Korea||50|
While cement-based concrete has a variety of benefits like being fire-proof, hydrographic, and frost-resistant, the IEA estimates that in 2019 the cement sector emitted 2.4 GtCO2, which accounted for 7% of global CO2 emissions. The production of concrete also requires high amounts of water, with calculations from 2012 finding that the concrete industry’s water withdrawals made up 9% of all industry water withdrawals (1.7% of total global water withdrawal).
To combat high carbon emissions and water consumption in concrete production, Swedish power company Vattenfall has developed a concrete mix which reduces the amount of cement needed, and as a result cuts down CO2 emissions by around 25%. Shifting the world’s concrete production to this new method could be the first step in greatly reducing cement and concrete’s impact on the environment.
Steel Recyclability Steals the Show
While cement is the most commonly used material in the world, steel is the most commonly used metal. With 1.8 billion tonnes produced last year, steel fulfills a variety of structural and construction needs, along with being an essential material for the production of vehicles, mechanical equipment, and domestic appliances.
One of steel’s greatest strengths is its ability to be infinitely recycled, making it the most recycled material in the world with new steel products containing an average of 30% recycled steel. While the world produced 1.8 billion tonnes of steel in 2020, since 1900 the steel industry has recycled over 25 billion tonnes of steel scrap, reducing iron ore and coal consumption by 35 billion and 18 billion tonnes respectively.
Global Steel Recovery Rates by Sector
|Sector||Steel Recovery Rate|
|Electrical and domestic appliances||50%|
Source: World Steel Association
The steel industry is also highly aware of reducing its environmental impact, with steel plants reusing the heat and electricity from process gases to provide between 60-100% of the plant’s electricity requirements. Along with this, ~90% of water used by the steel industry is returned to the source after being cleaned and cooled.
Yet steel production still emits around two tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of steel produced, largely due to the majority of the world’s steel production taking place in China’s coal-reliant plants. However, fossil-free steel is on the horizon, with carmaker Volvo partnering with the Swedish steelmakers SSAB to explore the development of fossil-free steel for the automotive industry.
More than Beaches
Completing the trio of essential city-building materials is industrial sand and gravel, with 265 million tonnes of the material produced in 2020. Primarily composed of quartz, feldspar, and other minerals and rock fragments, industrial sand and gravel is also called silica sand or quartz sand.
“It’s actually the most important solid substance in the world because without sand, we have no modern civilization.”
– Vince Beiser
While steel and cement are opaquely visible in their end products in our cities, industrial sand and gravel primarily makes up the transparent glass walls and windows of our world. It also serves essential functions as foundry sand, forming molds and patterns for various metal castings.
Just like steel and cement, industrial sand and gravel is an essential building block of the cities we live in. As the world continues its shift towards reducing carbon emissions, it is clear that these essential materials cannot be replaced, and rather must be improved upon.
The Biggest Mining Companies in the World in 2021
The graphic takes a look at the world’s largest mining companies by market capitalization and the metals they produce.
Ranked: The Top 20 Mining Companies
Mining companies have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in excellent financial and operational shape and the forecast is even brighter as the economy recovers.
The market is expected to reach a value of nearly $1.86 trillion by 2022, with the increasing demand for minerals for power generation and renewables technology.
In the graphic above, we show the world’s top companies by market capitalization as of June 22, 2021, and the metals they mine.
The Bottom Line: From Smartphones to Food
From roads, hospitals, automobiles, houses, computers, satellites, and even fertilizer for crops, mining provides many of the materials we interact with every day. Copper, iron, rare earth metals, aluminum, and phosphate are just a handful of the mined materials that make modern life and feed the bottom line for mining companies.
The two biggest by market capitalization, BHP ($179B) and Rio Tinto ($132B), both produce a range of commodities, mainly iron ore and copper. The next on the list is also the biggest company in Brazil, Vale ($112B). The miner is the world’s largest producer of iron ore and pellets (small balls of iron ore) used to manufacture steel.
|Company||Market Cap (USD)||Country||Main Mining Activity|
|BHP||$179B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore, copper, coal|
|Rio Tinto||$132B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore, aluminum, copper|
|Vale||$112B||🇧🇷 Brazil||iron ore, nickel|
|Glencore||$55B||🇨🇭 Switzerland||copper, cobalt, zinc, nickel|
|Norilsk Nickel||$54B||🇷🇺 Russia||palladium, nickel|
|Freeport-McMoRan||$52B||🇺🇸 United States||copper|
|Anglo American||$52B||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||diamonds, copper, platinum, iron ore, coal|
|Fortescue Metals||$51B||🇦🇺 Australia||iron ore|
|Newmont Goldcorp||$50B||🇺🇸 United States||gold|
|Southern Copper||$47B||🇺🇸 United States||copper|
|Zijin Mining Group||$38B||🇨🇳 China||gold, copper|
|Barrick Gold||$37B||🇨🇦 Canada||gold|
|Anglo American Platinum||$28B||🇿🇦 South Africa||platinum, palladium, rhodium|
|Ganfeng Lithium||$24B||🇨🇳 China||lithium|
|Wheaton Precious Metals||$20B||🇨🇦 Canada||gold, silver, palladium, cobalt|
|Antofagasta||$19B||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||copper|
|Ma’aden||$18B||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||gold|
A $57 billion gap separates the top 3 from the rest of the group. In fourth place comes Glencore ($55B) with its mixed operations of trading and mining metals, agricultural products, and oil and gas.
The automotive industry is a big consumer of metals, which explains Norilsk Nickel’s ($54B) fifth place. The company, owned by the wealthiest man in Russia, is the world’s biggest producer of palladium, used in vehicles’ catalytic converters.
Miners also serve the luxury market, with precious metals like gold, silver, and gemstones. Number six on the list, Anglo American ($52B) is one of the world’s leading diamond companies.
In terms of countries, Canada leads the ranking with 4 miners on the list. The United States and Australia come next with 3 companies each.
Charging and Changing the Future of Mining Companies
The United States, Europe, and Asia are making big investments in electrification and power generation. By 2024, almost 33% of the world’s electricity is forecast to come from renewables.
This shift from fossil fuels will require a lot of copper, cobalt, and lithium for batteries. Mining companies are in a position to capitalize as the market expands.
For example, no. 17 in the list, China’s Ganfeng Lithium, the world’s third-largest producer of lithium chemicals for batteries, saw its market capitalization grow more than 25% in 2021.
The energy transition is just beginning, and the materials used in building a more sustainable future will also build up the largest mining companies of tomorrow.
Visualizing 50 Years of Global Steel Production
Global steel production has tripled over the past 50 years, with China’s steel production eclipsing the rest of the world.
The Rise of the Steel Age
From the bronze age to the iron age, metals have defined eras of human history. If our current era had to be defined similarly, it would undoubtedly be known as the steel age.
Steel is the foundation of our buildings, vehicles, and industries, with its rates of production and consumption often seen as markers for a nation’s development. Today, it is the world’s most commonly used metal and most recycled material, with 1,864 million metric tons of crude steel produced in 2020.
This infographic uses data from the World Steel Association to visualize 50 years of crude steel production, showcasing our world’s unrelenting creation of this essential material.
The State of Steel Production
Global steel production has more than tripled over the past 50 years, despite nations like the U.S. and Russia scaling down their domestic production and relying more on imports. Meanwhile, China and India have consistently grown their production to become the top two steel producing nations.
Below are the world’s current top crude steel producing nations by 2020 production.
|Rank||Country||Steel Production (2020, Mt)|
|#5||🇺🇸 United States||72.7|
|#6||🇰🇷 South Korea||67.1|
Source: World Steel Association. *Estimates.
Despite its current dominance, China could be preparing to scale back domestic steel production to curb overproduction risks and ensure it can reach carbon neutrality by 2060.
As iron ore and steel prices have skyrocketed in the last year, U.S. demand could soon lessen depending on the Biden administration’s actions. A potential infrastructure bill would bring investment into America’s steel mills to build supply for the future, and any walkbalk on the Trump administration’s 2018 tariffs on imported steel could further soften supply constraints.
Steel’s Secret: Infinite Recyclability
Made up primarily of iron ore, steel is an alloy which also contains less than 2% carbon and 1% manganese and other trace elements. While the defining difference might seem small, steel can be 1,000x stronger than iron.
However, steel’s true strength lies in its infinite recyclability with no loss of quality. No matter the grade or application, steel can always be recycled, with new steel products containing 30% recycled steel on average.
The alloy’s magnetic properties make it easy to recover from waste streams, and nearly 100% of the steel industry’s co-products can be used in other manufacturing or electricity generation.
It’s fitting then that steel makes up essential parts of various sustainable energy technologies:
- The average wind turbine is made of 80% steel on average (140 metric tons).
- Steel is used in the base, pumps, tanks, and heat exchangers of solar power installations.
- Electrical steel is at the heart of the generators and motors of electric and hybrid vehicles.
The Steel Industry’s Future Sustainability
Considering the crucial role steel plays in just about every industry, it’s no wonder that prices are surging to record highs. However, steel producers are thinking about long-term sustainability, and are working to make fossil-fuel-free steel a reality by completely removing coal from the metallurgical process.
While the industry has already cut down the average energy intensity per metric ton produced from 50 gigajoules to 20 gigajoules since the 1960s, steel-producing giants like ArcelorMittal are going further and laying out their plans for carbon-neutral steel production by 2050.
Steel consumption and demand is only set to continue rising as the world’s economy gradually reopens, especially as Rio Tinto’s new development of atomized steel powder could bring about the next evolution in 3D printing.
As the industry continues to innovate in both sustainability and usability, steel will continue to be a vital material across industries that we can infinitely recycle and rely on.
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