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Rare Earth Metals Production: Possible Political Implications for National Security

Rare Earth Metals Production: Possible Political Implications for National Security

Rare earth elements have many important applications, particularly for defense and national security; therefore problems in their supply may have political implications. Matt Zolnowski, from J.A. Green & Company, comments on this issue.

Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements are the lanthanide elements of the periodic table - in the Figure on the side, these are the two lines at the bottom. Yttrium (Y) and scandium (Sc) are also considered rare earths.

The importance of these elements for technological applications is well known; the development of several green technologies, for instance, is heavily dependent on the use of rare earth elements (http://www.decodedscience.com/element-shortage-phosphorus-dysprosium/24539).

Defense Industry

Beyond green technology, rare earth elements also are essential for the fabrication of many high-profile weapon systems employed by the United States and by other western European countries.

Rare earth metals are used to make some very powerful magnets in weapon systems and flight control surfaces. Some precision-guided munitions, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the HELLFIRE missile (AGM-114), use samarium-cobalt or neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets. These magnets drive the servo-motors in fins, and larger systems like the F-35 Lightning II use these magnets for articulating parts, like flaps or landing gear. Other devices used by the defense forces also employ rare earth-based magnets, such as radar and wireless microwave / GHz communications.

In addition to magnets, ceramics based on zirconia and containing yttrium (YSZ, yttria-stabilized zirconia) are used as thermal barrier coatings in various parts of the aircraft such as turbines and engines, to prevent overheating and catastrophic failure. Aside from this direct application by militaries, aerospace companies utilize yttrium-based ceramics for the investment casting of metal parts, such as integrally bladed rotors or “blisks.” Some laser target designators and/or interrogators, used in tanks for instance, employ yttrium-based garnets (e.g., yttrium-aluminum or yttrium-iron).

Rare Earth Elements Supply

The few examples reported above show that the importance of rare earth elements is not confined just to a specific field but involves many technological applications crucial for our society, and particularly defense. It is therefore essential to have a supply of these elements which is sufficient to match the increasing demand.

From this point of view, one problem is the distribution of rare earth metals throughout the world, and their consequent global production. According to a US geological Survey, 95 % of rare earth elements output is produced by China; this dominant position may cause problems and have political implications.

Possible National Security Problems?

Matt Zolnowski, from J.A. Green & Company, explains to Decoded Science:

The extreme concentration of the rare earths production in a single country, namely China, is just one part of a complex problem. In addition to mining, Chinese companies dominate the intermediate processing steps of separation to oxide, reduction to metal, production of rare earth alloys, and manufacturing of rare earth magnets. While concentration of supply and downstream manufacturing are worrisome, this concern has escalated to a significant national security risk due to the imposition and tightening of export and production controls that have limited material availability to the defense industrial base.

For example, during the maritime tension between China and Japan in the East China Sea in late 2010, Chinese exports of rare earths to Japan, the United States, and the European Union were ceased; at this time, some defense contractors were unable to obtain rare earths — at any price. Although this ‘silent embargo’ was lifted, China subsequently tightened its exports through the summer of 2011, and defense contractors then turned to stockpiling rare earths so they could continue to meet contract requirements.

Raising Awareness

According to Mr. Zolnowski, it is important to be aware of this issue and of the possible consequences.

Raising awareness is absolutely essential. Many private companies are afraid or unwilling to speak-out on these issues because so much of their future growth or their raw material supply depends upon Chinese customers or exporters. In that sense, rare earth elements are no different than cyber security or counterfeit electronic parts, and this is why governments, who have responsibility for maintaining public goods like national security, need to be involved.

If we are going to address this comprehensive problem though, the solution needs to be equally comprehensive. Unfortunately, some of the proposed public policy remedies have focused on just one aspect, to the detriment of others. We will need to address new mining operations and processing, as well as our manufacturing base and end-of-life recycling.

These points raised by Mr. Zolnowski prove how political issues such as national security may have several aspects to be taken into account, and that science is surely one of them.

Sources

Hedrick, J.B. Rare earths in selected US defense applications. 40th Forum of the Geology of the Industrial Minerals. Accessed June 2013. http://www.usmagneticmaterials.com/documents/RARE-EARTHS-IN-US-DEFENSE-APPS-Hendrick.pdf

Pui-Kwan, T. China’s rare-earth industry: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report. (2011). http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2011/1042/ Accessed June 2013.

Zolnowski, Matthew D. Personal Interview. June 2013.

Originally published in Decoded Science

Jeff Green