Examining the rise and fall of molybdenum
December 20, 2015
What is molybdenum?
A true Colorado claim to fame, that's for sure (well, us and Sweden … and some others). You see, before the Climax Molybdenum Mine opened here, no one else was all that sure what molybdenum was either. The mineral was known to exist as early as Greek and Roman times, but in those early days it wasn't really distinguished from lead, since both were soft and all were labeled as molybdos. Several other minerals, like graphite were also lumped into the lead family, not completely unlike people that can't tell the difference between a mountain goat and a big horn sheep — we aren't all sheep, people!
Eventually, molybdenum made its big debut in 1778 when Swedish chemist, Karl Scheele recognized it for the unique little snow flake that it is. Scheele was able to isolate molybdenum's unique properties to find it was actually a mineral sulfite, not just lead's tag-along little brother. Naming rights for this mineral however go to another Swede who knew the only real way to learn about something is to light it on fire. P.J. Hjelm heated the mineral using coal (thanks, Santa) until it reduced into a powder form which he then named molybdenum.
After making it into the big boy club — name and all — molybdenum set off like an angsty teen to discover its properties. It took 100 years, but in 1893 German chemists produced a 96-percent pure sample, and again, like that bratty kid, molybdenum finally became useful.
In 1894 its starring role came in the form of a substitute for tungsten in steel tools, and then it was onto battle! Molybdenum first saw the battlefield as an armor-plate in France, also in 1894. Instantly war and molybdenum became bed-fellows with the largest developments in the mineral coming during World War I when a German company, the American Metal Company (ironic, isn't it?), drove the desire for the mineral and created the Climax Molybdenum Company in 1916 in Colorado. It was a two-year-long wild ride for the little mineral as prices soared, and it was suddenly very in demand for the war effort. However, like your favorite '80s band, the love affair didn't last. When the war ended in 1918, molybdenum fell from grace, and the civilian force saw little use for the war-worn mineral that no longer could.
Over the next 60 years molydbenum would continue to live a bipolar lifestyle, peaking during times of war and losing favor in peace times. However, the U.S. government had seriously prioritized the production and mining of the material during this time, to the point that they created a massive stockpile. The mineral was released directors-cut style every few years, until 1977 when the stockpile finally went away. At the same time the mineral was starting to be used in the energy field as a subsitute for oil. So in 1977 just before the excess went away, the average price of molybdenum was $10.70 per kilogram, by 1979 it had sky-rocketed to $51 per kilogram.
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'79 was the glory day for molybdenum, and though it still had serious demand during the Persian Gulf War from 1992-95 and dissolution of the Soviet Union, nothing could compare to those disco ball days. As it tried for a comeback tour, the mineral again suffered from over-production in the late '90s and wouldn't be an object of desire until 2005, though that spike was also short-lived. As alternative energy sources continue to evolve the future for molybdenum remains in doubt, but hey, Hall & Oates are still around.
Quandary, an old and wise mountain goat, has been around Summit County for ages, and has the answers to any question about life, love and laws in the High Country. Have a question for Quandary? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
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