Monday, April 24, 2017

Rare earth elements: A national crisis is in the making

The history of mankind has been filled with numerous wars, of both the military and trade sort, over elements that come from the Earth. Gold and silver have long been at the epicenter of such struggles, many a civilization driven to destruction over their greed - or other peoples’ desires - for the metals.

There are other precious elements now taking their place as resources hungered by all and they are already testing the balance of power in global trade. Rare earth elements (REE) are a collection of 17 members of the periodic table. All of them are not as well-known as metals like copper and zinc yet they are just as important. REE like yttrium (cancer treatments), lanthanum (hybrid car batteries), cerium (catalytic converters), neodymium (magnets) and gadolinium (nuclear reactors) are crucial to our modern society and, truthfully, we could not live without them.

Like gold in our world’s long history, whoever possesses REE, possesses the power. 

We don’t.

Currently, China mines in excess of 90% of the world’s REE while holding 40% of the Earth’s reserves. The United States has 9% of the world’s reserves and is mining nothing.

Needless to say, having all of our eggs in one basket – especially one held by China - is dangerous for national security. Just ask Japan.

Back in September of 2010, Chinese officials temporarily unleashed a trade embargo that prevented shipments of REE to Japan, scaring the dickens out of Japanese manufacturers. It was believed that China did this as a bargaining chip to secure the release of a Chinese captain detained by Japanese officials.

In the whole scheme of things, a political impasse like that is nothing in comparison to the potential for conflict that exists between China and the US. China controls $1.12 trillion in US debt and we’ve had strained relations of late for various reasons, one being a new President who won on a campaign blasting China and the other reason being the flexing of muscles between the US and North Korea (China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and likely the supplier of the physical and intellectual resources needed to make Pyongyang’s ballistics). It wouldn’t take much for an agitated China to impose temporary REE restrictions.

China has dominated the REE marketplace because of their less-stringent environmental standards. Most of the 17 elements are not rare as the name supplies. They are widely available throughout the world yet are rare in finished, usable form because the excavation and processing of them can be toxic to the environment if not properly controlled.

America has been out of the REE game for years because of those warranted environmental concerns. But, environmentalists in the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as other unexpected REE champions like the news show “60 Minutes”, now see merit in the development of REE projects because they know that, ironically, clean energy technologies (like wind turbines and new-age automobiles) require rare earths. It’s a catch-22: One set of resources (REE) must be capitalized at cost to the environment to prevent other resources (oil, coal) from harming the environment.

A few years back a company named Molycorp was finally given the okay to tap into a vast REE reserve in the Mojave Desert after an 8-year suspension of operations by the federal government. That mine offers the single largest deposit of REE outside of China. The value of the materials couldn’t overcome the agonies of that prolonged suspension, as Molycorp went bankrupt in 2014 and the last of the US REE mines closed in 2015.  

It is hoped that other projects are developed and quickly at that. Doing so will require a serious public-private partnership that will need the government, environmentalists and corporations working hand in hand to develop guidelines and processes necessary for a relatively clean and safe realization of our resources’ potentials.

Those entities also need to follow the lofty goals set by Apple in recent weeks. The tech giant said that they want to wean themselves off of mined resources and one day produce all of their products from recycled materials – including recycled REE, which would be an extraordinary undertaking in itself.  

That sort of forward thinking is what we need to weather the storm ahead. Without the ability to produce REE, we could be heading into a new national crisis, one where we will suffer in the health, energy, and defense industries until we can get back on track in REE capture and end our reliance on China and the other players in the global marketplace.

From the 24 April 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

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