New sources of rare earth minerals are critical to U.S. national security
U.S. next-generation military technology has become so dependent on a steady supply of rare earth metals that it could become a strategic disadvantage in any coming war with China. In addition, these metals have become valuable for advanced electronics and energy efficient "green" technologies.
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Until a decade ago, the United States was 100 percent self-reliant for rare earth production, with domestic companies producing enough to supply U.S. manufacturers. Over time, however, U.S. production was halted as it became economically and environmentally cost prohibitive.
Companies in various countries – including the United States – are looking at reopening closed mines and developing new deposits, but these efforts could take a number of years to fully come on line.
The deep seabed offers a new opportunity for the United States to gain steady access to these vital rare earth minerals. Polymetallic nodules are located on the deep ocean floor. These nodules typically contain manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals. However, U.S. companies cannot actively pursue claims in the areas where these nodules are dense unless the U.S. ratifies the Law of the Sea Treaty.
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Today, a single country – China – holds a virtual monopoly on the mining and production of rare earth elements. China produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply and also consumes roughly 60 percent of that supply. Brazil, India, Malaysia and Canada are the other sources of the remaining paltry supply of rare earths.
China recently imposed significant export restrictions on its rare earth production. In 2010, it announced it would cut exports of rare earth minerals by 40 percent by 2012. Just last week, Chinese officials released a white paper defending the country’s export control restrictions on rare earths. Earlier this year, the U.S. joined with Japan and the European Union to file complaints with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over China’s export policies on rare earths. Experts believe China may eventually consume 100 percent of the rare earth minerals that it produces, jeopardizing U.S. manufacturers’ access to these materials and, at the very least, significantly driving up costs for companies that use these minerals. These increased costs would impose significant and detrimental costs on the many millions of consumers who use these products and could have a profound negative impact on U.S. national security.
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Many rare earth products and technologies possess dual-use attributes, meaning they are used for both commercial and military purposes. In the commercial sector, for example, today’s hybrid vehicles employ rare earths permanent magnets in their electric traction drives,27 which either replace or supplement internal combustion engines in hybrid automobiles, increasing energy efficiency.28 Additionally, the Toyota Prius has a nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery for energy storage, which increases overall fuel economy.29 Wind turbines also integrate permanent magnets in gear- less generators for better reliability and online performance.30 The new fluorescent light bulbs on the market utilize rare earth phosphors. These light bulbs consume 70 percent less energy than the older incandescent bulbs.31 Finally, rare earths are found in automobile catalytic convertors to reduce dangerous emissions of CO2 and ozone, contributing to a cleaner environment.32
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Furthermore, dual-use components made from rare earths play a vital role in U.S. national security through defense sector applications. Permanent magnets are incorporated in critical guidance and control mechanisms of U.S.-built weapons, enabling kinetic weapons to impact their target.33 Today’s advanced jet engines are coated with rare earth elements for increased thermal stress resistance.34 The performance requirements for the engines on the F-22A Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) are extremely stringent based on the environment in which these aircraft routinely operate. Without the added thermal protection rare earths provide, engine performance may be degraded with catastrophic results.
Rare earths technology used in electronics also has numerous defense applications. The same technology used in manufacturing commercial Ni-MH batteries is also found in both electronic warfare systems and directed energy weapons.35 Examples of their use include smart jammers on advanced U.S. fighter aircraft, area denial weapons systems, and the electromagnetic railgun.36 All of these weapons require high efficiency battery technology to function properly. Additionally, computer drives manufactured with critical rare earths enable precision weapons systems to reach their targets, while laser technology depends on the amplification properties of rare earths for targeting.37 Without these critical components, accuracy would deteriorate, potentially resulting in increased collateral damage and weapons expenditure.
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The demand for rare earths continues to rise. In 2010, the worldwide demand for rare earth oxides was 127,500 metric tons.45 China produced over 130,000 metric tons of rare earths in 2010 and 2011, eclipsing world demand.46 The next largest producer was India with a paltry 3,000 metric tons, followed by Brazil at 550 metric tons, and Malaysia at thirty metric tons.47 These production rates exemplify the disparity between China and its closest competitors in the industry.
By 2014, it is estimated that total demand for rare earth oxides will reach 177,200 metric tons.48 This increase equates to a 75 percent growth in demand for battery alloy production and a 57 percent growth in demand for permanent magnets.49 Capacity for meeting the increased demand is uncertain. Of the world’s estimated 110,000,000 metric tons of reserves, China controls half.50 The Commonwealth of Independent States is second, controlling approximately 19,000,000 metric tons, with the U.S. in third at 13,000,000 metric tons.51 Despite the large number of reserves deposited across the planet, very few countries possess the capacity to mine the ores and process them into rare earth oxides. However, with increasing demand on the horizon accompanied by increasing value, more nations as well as private corporations may be willing to enter the market
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As demonstrated in the hypothetical scenario at the beginning of this paper, China’s hold on rare earths may be a decisive factor in a future confrontation with the United States. The numerous weapons systems that rely on rare earths technology place the United States at a strategic disad- vantage with regards to China. If a prolonged, large-scale conflict between the two nations broke out over a Taiwan Strait or South China Sea dispute, the United States may find itself squeezed to obtain sufficient supplies of rare earths to manufacture replacement parts or systems to remain engaged in the fight. Much as the lack of secure access to oil was crippling to the Germans at the end of World War II, rare earths could play a similar, pivotal role in a future conflict with China. In the air-to-air arena alone, the requirement to replace expended stockpiles of advanced air-to-air missiles could become a factor very quickly based on the number of aircraft China would be capable of employing.
A huge chunk of modern-day technology, from hybrid cars to iPhones to flat-screen TVs to radiation screens, use dozens of different metals and alloys. What would happen if we run short of any of these valuable metals? Say there's a war. Or unrest in a crucial mining region. Or China decides to lock up its strontium deposits. Could we easily come up with substitutes? Or is modern society vulnerable to a materials shortage?
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