Few people realize just how important molybdenum is for the products we use in our everyday lives. (Or that the mineral may have been at the beginning of life as we know it. Click here for more.) This versatile metal is a vital component in items you use every day — even as you get breakfast each morning before heading off to work.
Molybdenum has both material and chemical uses, but close to 86 percent of what’s mined is used as an alloy in the production of stainless steel. At the end of the steel-making process, molybdenum is added to pig iron. The result is highly prized because the stainless steel created is known for its strength and durability, resistance to corrosion and bacteria, and high heat tolerance.
As a result of these properties, stainless steel has become ubiquitous in our daily lives: it’s used to manufacture not only appliances such as stoves and refrigerators, but also the large tankers that transport orange juice and milk. A good chef prizes his or her set of knives and a surgeon relies on stainless steel instruments to make an exact incision that won’t cause infection. The water that comes out of the kitchen tap is safe to drink thanks to the molybdenum used in the miles of pipeline through which the water travels.
With a melting point of 4,753 degrees Fahrenheit, molybdenum can increase the toughness of steel and make it far less prone to melting in extreme temperatures. These properties make molybdenum a valuable alloy in the production of the cutting parts of machine tools, rocket motors and the turbine blades of jet engines. In construction, molybdenum is added to steel that is used for reinforcing structures as well as decorative facades.
The Thompson Creek Molybdenum Mine, just outside of Challis, in the central Idaho mountains, is the fourth-largest primary molybdenum mine in the nation. At the on-site mill, molybdenum disulfide concentrate – a fine black powder — is extracted from the mined ore through a process of crushing, grinding and flotation, resulting in approximately 28,000 tons of production per day.
Molybdenum disulfide makes an excellent lubricant because it adheres to metal surfaces, creating a heat-resistant barrier. This keeps the moving parts from grinding against each other and seizing up from friction. The powder can be added directly into the steel- making process or it can be added to oil or grease.
This lubricant has a wide range of practical uses. In cars, it keeps brakes, ball joints, wheel bearings and the velocity joints of cars with front-wheel drive operating smoothly. It’s also used to coat curved rail tracks to reduce wear on train wheels and as a coating on bullets, to minimize fouling of the gun barrel and to increase accuracy.
In addition to the more traditional uses of molybdenum, scientists are now discovering its adaptability to uses in electronics and nanotechnology. Researchers at MIT have used sheets of molybdenum disulfide just one millimeter thick to create ultra-thin nano-electronic components. These components, which include logic, memory and oscillator devices, will be the basis of ultra-thin, energy-efficient TV screens, wearable computers and chemical sensors.
With a plethora of domestic and military uses – and now, as a component in nano-technology products — the global demand for molybdenum is expected to grow at an average of 4.6 percent over the next three years.
And it is produced right here in Idaho.