Think Zinc

May 21, 2024

Zinc is more than just a rock - it is a profoundly essential ingredient for modern life. For some, zinc might invoke a memory of sun-soaked days and white-nosed sunblock, but today’s uses for zinc include so much more. Zinc is one of the most versatile and essential materials known to humankind. It is the fourth most used metal in the world behind iron, aluminum, and copper.

A Resource Powerhouse

From musical instruments to semiconductors, TV screens to fishing gear and flywheels, zinc is a remarkable metal found nearly everywhere. It is also an essential mineral for human health required to be added to breakfast cereal and other foods to increase nutritional value and improve public health.

According to the American Galvanizers Association, more than 11 million tons of zinc are consumed annually worldwide. Its unique properties integrate and support critical industries including transportation, energy storage, technology, healthcare, infrastructure, renewable energy, food supplies, and consumer products.  

In many arenas, zinc has replaced the use of lead - and zinc is mined right here in Alaska!

Photo courtesy of Teck Red Dog Mine

Did You Know?

The largest producing zinc mine in theUnited States is Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue, Alaska. Red Dog is also the first mining site to receive the stand-alone Zinc Mark (2024) in recognition of environmentally and socially responsible production practices.

Getting the Lead Out

The replacement of lead with zinc has been a significant trend in various industries due to the adverse health and environmental effects associated with lead. Zinc offers comparable performance while being less toxic and more environmentally friendly.

  • Fish-friendly Gear: Exchanging old-school lead fishing weights with zinc or copper-zinc alloy products is not only healthier for the environment and fish, it is healthier for humans! While lead is found throughout the environment, high levels are toxic to most living things. Keeping lead weights out of the water is better for fish and the people and animals who eat them.
  • Construction: Zinc coatings are widely used to protect iron and steel structures, such as buildings, bridges, highway guardrails, and infrastructure, from corrosion. Galvanized steel, which is coated with zinc, has largely replaced lead-based coatings in construction applications due to zinc's superior corrosion resistance without the health and environmental risks of lead-based coatings.
  • Batteries: Zinc-air batteries have emerged as an alternative to lead-acid batteries in some applications. These batteries use oxygen from the air as a reactant, making them lighter and potentially more environmentally friendly than traditional lead-acid batteries.
  • Automotive: Zinc alloys are used extensively in the automotive industry for various components, including die-cast parts, body panels, and engine components. These zinc components offer lightweight, durable alternatives to lead-based materials, contributing to improved fuel efficiency and reduced environmental impact.
  • Electronics: Zinc alloys are used in electronics manufacturing for components such as connectors, terminals, circuitry, and soldering materials. Zinc-based solders and brazing materials are replacing lead-based materials in electronics assembly processes, driven by environmental regulations and consumer demand for safer products.
  • Paints and Coatings: Zinc-based paints and coatings are utilized as alternatives to lead-based formulations in various applications, including marine and industrial coatings. These coatings provide effective corrosion protection without the health risks associated with lead.
  • Plumbing and Water Distribution: Zinc-coated steel pipes and fittings are used in plumbing systems as alternatives to lead pipes and fixtures. Zinc coatings provide long-lasting corrosion protection for water distribution systems without the health risks associated with lead leaching into drinking water.
  • Agriculture: Zinc-based fertilizers and soil additives are used in agriculture to correct zinc deficiencies in crops and improve soil health. These products are replacing lead-based fertilizers, offering safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives for crop production.
  • Healthcare: Zinc has applications in healthcare products and pharmaceuticals, including zinc-based supplements and topical treatments. These products are replacing lead-based treatments in certain medical applications due to zinc's lower toxicity and better safety profile.

The substitution of zinc for lead in various industries reflects a broader trend toward safer, more sustainable materials and manufacturing processes driven by regulatory requirements, consumer preferences, and environmental concerns. So, the next time you turn on the lights in your home, zip up your coat, see a solar panel, or tap a tune on your tuba, think of zinc - and its possible source, Alaska.