Rhenium: A case study in critical metals inaction
It’s wrong to say the U.S. Congress never gets anything done. In the midst of the partisan gridlock that paralyzed Washington past the start of the new fiscal year, the U.S. House actually passed the Defense Authorization Act for 2014, sending it to the Senate, where leaders say there’s potential for early action.
What importance does that have for resource wonks – especially those who follow strategic and critical metals?
For those who plow through the 478 pages of House act (I read it so you don’t have to) there’s an alarm bell lurking in the torrent of legis-speak. Take this section in Title III:
“Tungsten rhenium wire for Department of Defense requirements
The committee is aware that the manufacturing of tungsten and molybdenum powders, including tungsten rhenium (WRe) wire, is used in a variety of Department of Defense (DOD)
The committee is aware that currently there are not suitable substitutes available for WRe wire.
Accordingly, the committee directs the Secretary of Defense to report to the congressional defense committees no later than February 1, 2014, with a determination as to whether DOD has a sufficient supply of WRe wire to support DOD requirements.
If not, the Secretary shall also submit a mitigation plan to ensure that DOD has a sufficient supply of WRe wire to support its requirements.”
In the case of Tungsten, the U.S. currently produces more than half of the metal it uses each year. Which makes Rhenium the weak link in the WRe chain. At the risk of spoiling the suspense for the SecDef staff tasked with reporting on the Tungsten Rhenium wire situation, they’ll find that
- Rhenium has the second-highest melting point of any element – behind Tungsten, the other material in Tungsten Rhenium wire.
- According to USGS, the U.S. currently imports 78% of the Rhenium it uses, most of it from Chile and Kazakhstan.
- Rhenium is critical for high-temperature superalloys used in the turbines of the Joint Strike Fighter-35 and other fighter aircraft.
- There is no Rhenium in the U.S. National Defense Stockpile.
But don’t bother looking for a Rhenium mine that produces this element. Rhenium doesn’t occur freely in nature; it can only be recovered as a by-product of the copper and molybdenum smelting process. If it’s not, Rhenium literally goes up in smoke – as a particulate that disappears up the smelter flue.
With just 50 tons or so produced worldwide each year, Rhenium is a rare metal by any definition. And it takes truly massive amounts of copper production to yield even the small amounts of Rhenium captured each year. According to General Electric:
“It takes, on Average, approximately 120 metric tons (264,554 pounds) or the equivalent weight of 44 Cadillac Escalade SUV´s – of copper ore to produce 1 ounce of Rhenium – or the equivalent of five U.S. quarter coins.”
But there’s good news – or at least there could be – by way of the proposed Resolution Copper mine in Arizona, projected to generate more than 20 tons of Rhenium per year as a copper by-product. That would increase U.S. Rhenium production by more than 200% — to a level nearly double the high point of U.S. Rhenium production at the end of the Cold War.
Not only would that help meet the non-specified military needs that caused members of the House Armed Services Committee to include the Rhenium Tungsten study into the 2014 Defense Authorization Act – it would provide for the first time a steady U.S. supply of Rhenium that would allow metallurgical engineers to “design in” the element’s remarkable physical properties, rather than engineer-out Rhenium needs the U.S. market cannot meet and which would only deepen foreign dependency.
And yet the copper mine in question remains in limbo, hung up in the very same U.S. House that passed the Defense Authorization Act — by mine opponents who claim the project will imperil a Native American sacred site, despite two rulings by the U.S. Forest Service that such concerns have no basis in fact.
U.S. policymakers have a choice to make. They can put in place a strategic resource development policy that would help produce more U.S. supply of critical metals like Rhenium – and, while they’re at it, the 18 other metals for which the U.S. is currently 100% import-dependent – or they can stick with our current faith-based resource policy on the theory that other countries will happily sell us the metals and minerals we fail to mine in the U.S.
Until then, Rhenium will remain an example of the leverage the U.S. places in other country’s hands to provide – or withhold – metals critical to U.S. national security.
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