Visualizing the Scale and Composition of the Earth's Crust
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Visualizing the Scale and Composition of the Earth’s Crust

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Visualizing the Scale and Composition of the Earth’s Crust

For as long as humans have been wandering the top of Earth’s crust, we’ve been fascinated with what’s inside.

And Earth’s composition has been vital for our advancement. From finding the right kinds of rocks to make tools, all the way to making efficient batteries and circuit boards, we rely on minerals in Earth’s crust to fuel innovation and technology.

This animation by Dr. James O’Donoghue, a planetary researcher at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA, is a visual comparison of Earth’s outer layers and their major constituents by mass.

What is the Composition of Earth’s Crust?

The combined mass of Earth’s surface water and crust, the stiff outermost layer of our planet, is less than half a percent of the total mass of the Earth.

There are over 90 elements found in Earth’s crust. But only a small handful make up the majority of rocks, minerals, soil, and water we interact with daily.

1. Silicon

Most abundant in the crust is silicon dioxide (SiO2), found in pure form as the mineral quartz. We use quartz in the manufacturing of glass, electronics, and abrasives.

Why is silicon dioxide so abundant? It can easily combine with other elements to form “silicates,” a group of minerals that make up over 90% of Earth’s crust.

Clay is one of the better-known silicates and micas are silicate minerals used in paints and cosmetics to make them sparkle and shimmer.

MineralMajor ElementsPercentage of Crust
Plagioclase FeldsparO, Si, Al, Ca, Na39%
Alkali FeldsparO, Si, Al, Na, K12%
QuartzO, Si12%
PyroxeneO, Si, Mg, Fe11%
AmphiboleO, Si, Mg, Fe5%
Non-silicatesVariable8%
MicasO, Si, Al, Mg, Fe, Ca, Na, K5%
Clay MineralsO, Si, Al, Mg, Fe, Ca, Na, K5%
Other SilicatesO, Si3%

2. Aluminum and Calcium

SiO2 bonds very easily with aluminum and calcium, our next most abundant constituents. Together with some sodium and potassium, they form feldspar, a mineral that makes up 41% of rocks on Earth’s surface.

While you may not have heard of feldspar, you use it every day; it’s an important ingredient in ceramics and it lowers the melting point of glass, making it cheaper and easier to produce screens, windows, and drinking glasses.

3. Iron and Magnesium

Iron and magnesium each make up just under 5% of the crust’s mass, but they combine with SiO2 and other elements to form pyroxenes and amphiboles. These two important mineral groups constitute around 16% of crustal rocks.

Maybe the best known of these minerals are the two varieties of jade, jadeite (pyroxene) and nephrite (amphibole). Jade minerals have been prized for their beauty for centuries, and are commonly used in counter-tops, construction, and landscaping.

Some asbestos minerals, now largely banned for their cancer-causing properties, belong to the amphibole mineral group. They were once in high demand for their insulating and fire-retardant properties and were even used in brake pads, cigarette filters, and as artificial snow.

4. Water

Surprisingly, even though it covers almost three quarters of Earth’s surface, water (H2O) makes up less than 5% of the crust’s mass. This is partly because water is significantly less dense than other crustal constituents, meaning it has less mass per volume.

Breaking Earth’s Crust Down by Element

Though there are many different components that form the Earth’s crust, all of the above notably include oxygen.

When breaking down the crust by element, oxygen is indeed the most abundant element at just under half the mass of Earth’s crust. It is followed by silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, and sodium.

All other remaining elements make up just over 5% of the crust’s mass. But that small section includes all the metals and rare earth elements that we use in construction and technology, which is why discovering and economically extracting them is so crucial.

What Lies Below?

As the crust is only the outermost layer of Earth, there are other layers left to contemplate and discover. While we have never directly interacted with the Earth’s mantle or core, we do know quite a bit about their structure and composition thanks to seismic tomography.

The Upper Mantle

At a few specific spots on Earth, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have been strong enough to expose pieces of the upper mantle, which are also made of mostly silicates.

The mineral olivine makes up about 55% of the upper mantle composition and causes its greenish color. Pyroxene comes in second at 35%, and calcium-rich feldspar and other calcium and aluminum silicates make up between 5–10%.

Going Even Deeper

Beyond the upper mantle, Earth’s composition is not as well known.

Deep-mantle minerals have only been found on Earth’s surface as components of extra-terrestrial meteorites and as part of diamonds brought up from the deep mantle.

One thing the lower mantle is thought to contain is the silicate mineral bridgmanite, at an abundance of up to 75%. Earth’s core, meanwhile, is believed to be made up of iron and nickel with small amounts of oxygen, silicon, and sulphur.

As technology improves, we will be able to discover more about the mineral and elemental makeup of the Earth and have an even better understanding of the place we all call home.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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All the Metals We Mined in 2021: Visualized

See all the 2.8 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2021.

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all the metals mined in 2021

All the Metals We Mined in 2021

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

“If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it” is a famous saying that encapsulates the importance of minerals and metals in the modern world.

From every building we enter to every device we use, virtually everything around us contains some amount of metal.

The above infographic visualizes all 2.8 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2021 and highlights each metal’s largest end-use using data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Why Do We Mine So Much Iron Ore?

Iron ore accounted for 93% of the metals mined in 2021, with 2.6 billion tonnes extracted from the ground. It’s important to note that this is ore production, which is typically higher than metal production since metals are extracted and refined from ores. For example, the iron metal content of this ore is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes.

Metal/Ore2021 Mine Production (tonnes)% of Total
Iron ore2,600,000,00093.4%
Industrial metals181,579,8926.5%
Technology and precious metals1,474,8890.05%
Total2,783,054,781100.0%

With 98% of it converted into pig iron to make steel, iron ore is ubiquitous in our lives. Steel made from iron ore is used in construction, transportation, and household appliances, and it’s likely that you encounter something made out of it every day, especially if you live in a city.

Due to its key role in building infrastructure, iron ore is one of the most important materials supporting urbanization and economic growth.

Industrial Metals

Industrial metals are largely used in steelmaking, construction, chemical manufacturing, and as alloying agents. In 2021, the world mined over 181 million tonnes of these metals.

Industrial Metals2021 Mine Production (tonnes)% of Total
Aluminum*68,000,00037.4%
Chromium41,000,00022.6%
Copper21,000,00011.6%
Manganese20,000,00011.0%
Zinc13,000,0007.2%
Titanium (mineral concentrates)9,000,0005.0%
Lead4,300,0002.4%
Nickel2,700,0001.5%
Zirconium Minerals (Zircon)1,200,0000.7%
Magnesium*950,0000.5%
Strontium360,0000.2%
Uranium48,3320.03%
Bismuth*19,0000.01%
Mercury2,3000.001%
Beryllium2600.0001%
Total181,579,892100.0%

*Represents refinery/smelter production.

Aluminum accounted for nearly 40% of industrial metal production in 2021. China was by far the largest aluminum producer, making up more than half of global production. The construction industry uses roughly 25% of annually produced aluminum, with 23% going into transportation.

Chromium is a lesser-known metal with a key role in making stainless steel stainless. In fact, stainless steel is usually composed of 10% to 30% of chromium, enhancing its strength and corrosion resistance.

Copper, manganese, and zinc round out the top five industrial metals mined in 2021, each with its own unique properties and roles in the economy.

Technology and Precious Metals

Technology metals include those that are commonly used in technology and devices. Compared to industrial metals, these are usually mined on a smaller scale and could see faster consumption growth as the world adopts new technologies.

Technology and Precious Metals2021 Mine Production (tonnes)% of Total
Tin300,00020.3%
Molybdenum300,00020.3%
Rare Earth Oxides280,00019.0%
Cobalt170,00011.5%
Vanadium110,0007.5%
Lithium106,0007.2%
Tungsten79,0005.4%
Niobium75,0005.1%
Silver24,0001.6%
Cadmium24,0001.6%
Gold3,0000.2%
Tantalum2,1000.1%
Indium*9200.1%
Gallium4300.03%
Platinum Group Metals3800.03%
Rhenium590.004%
Total1,474,889100.0%

*Represents refinery/smelter production.

The major use of rhenium, one of the rarest metals in terms of production, is in superalloys that are critical for engine turbine blades in aircraft and gas turbine engines. The petroleum industry uses it in rhenium-platinum catalysts to produce high-octane gasoline for vehicles.

In terms of growth, clean energy technology metals stand out. For example, lithium production has more than doubled since 2016 and is set to ride the boom in EV battery manufacturing. Over the same period, global rare earth production more than doubled, driven by the rising demand for magnets.

Indium is another interesting metal on this list. Most of it is used to make indium tin oxide, an important component of touchscreens, TV screens, and solar panels.

The Metal Mining Megatrend

The world’s material consumption has grown significantly over the last few decades, with growing economies and cities demanding more resources.

Global production of both iron ore and aluminum has more than tripled relative to the mid-1990s. Other metals, including copper and steel, have also seen significant consumption growth.

Today, economies are not only growing and urbanizing but also adopting mineral-intensive clean energy technologies, pointing towards further increases in metal production and consumption.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Iron Ore Producers

Iron ore made up 93% of the 2.7 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2021. This infographic lists the world’s largest iron ore producers.

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Visualizing the World’s Largest Iron Ore Producers

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Iron ore comprised roughly 93% of the 2.7 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2021.

It is used primarily (98%) to make steel, with the remaining 2% becoming magnets, auto parts, and catalysts.

Using data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the above infographic lists the world’s largest iron ore producers in 2021.

Pilbara and Carajás Iron Ore

Iron is the fourth most abundant element on the planet after oxygen, silicon, and aluminum, constituting about 5% of the Earth’s crust.

Australia produced 35% of the iron ore mined last year. Almost 90% of identified iron ore resources in the country occur in Western Australia, especially in the Pilbara region.

The large and dry region is known for its Aboriginal peoples and also for its red earth as a result of a chemical reaction of iron exposed to air and water. The three major Pilbara iron ore producers are also among the top mining companies in the world: BHP Group, Rio Tinto Ltd, and Fortescue Metals.

Country2021 Production (Tonnes)
🇦🇺 Australia900,000,000
🇧🇷 Brazil380,000,000
🇨🇳 China360,000,000
🇮🇳 India240,000,000
🇷🇺 Russia100,000,000
🇺🇦 Ukraine81,000,000
🇨🇦 Canada68,000,000
🇿🇦 South Africa61,000,000
🇰🇿 Kazakhstan64,000,000
🇮🇷 Iran50,000,000
🇺🇸 United States46,000,000
🇸🇪 Sweden40,000,000
🇨🇱 Chile19,000,000
🇲🇽 Mexico17,000,000
🇵🇪 Peru16,000,000
🇹🇷 Turkey16,000,000
🌐 Other countries90,000,000

After Australia, Brazil is the second biggest producer, with iron ore accounting for 80% of the country’s mining exports.

Brazil’s biggest public company, Vale, is the world’s largest producer of iron ore and nickel. The company runs the Carajás mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world. Located in the state of Pará, in the north of the country, the mine is operated as an open-pit mine and is estimated to contain roughly 7.2 billion metric tons of iron ore.

Together, Australia and Brazil dominate the world’s iron ore exports, each having about one-third of total exports.

China is the largest consumer of iron ore, used to feed its steel industry.

Despite being the third largest producer, China still imports around 80% of the iron ore it uses each year. The country brought in 1.12 billion tonnes of the commodity last year.

Iron Ore’s Role in the Green Economy

Iron ore demand is expected to rise in the coming years as steel plays a crucial role in producing and distributing energy.

Steel is used extensively in agriculture, solar and wind power, and also in infrastructure for hydroelectric.

Furthermore, steel is used for the production of transformers, generators, and electric motors, along with ships, trucks, and trains.

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