Imagine a closet stuffed with a billion envelopes. One has a check for $100,000 inside. Do you go hunting? Anthony Lipmann does. One in a billion is the concentration in the Earth’s crust of an element named rhenium, part of a group of so-called minor metals notable for two reasons: They’re exceedingly difficult to obtain, and they’re spectacularly important for certain industries. That’s why Lipmann loves them—the more technology frees us from our earthly bonds, the more we discover how linked we are to forms of nature we didn’t know existed.
Lipmann is a scavenger. Based just outside London, he makes his living in the hinterlands of commodities, finding the stuff most can’t and picking up what others discard. His business model is deceptively simple: Identify something rare that manufacturers need, figure out how to get it, then step in when gaps in the supply chain appear. Most of his inventory— which includes germanium, zirconium, ruthenium, indium, tellurium, hafnium, tantalum, and tungsten, to name a few— is stored in warehouses in the U.K. and other European countries, ready to go at a moment’s notice. “My guiding principle is demand,” he says. “If someone wants something to put in a product, even if it’s toxic or radioactive, if it’s genuinely needed for an industrial purpose and not a weapon, I think that’s a legitimate reason to get involved.”