Military Success, Rare Metals and the Periodic Table
How the Military came to Love Rare Earth and Other Technology Metals
The following observation, made by Abraham [1, p157] is true today, as it has been since ancient times.
Throughout history, a country’s ability to harvest the power of the periodic table has translated directly to the success of its military, providing as much advantage in battle as do tactical decisions. Historically, civilizations that have mastered the art of making weapons from the most advanced metallurgy and materials of their day have dominated the societies around them.
The military of 2016 differs in significant ways from that of a century ago. Weapons based on hydraulic and mechanical principles dominated the scene through much of the 20th century. Today’s electronic-based weaponry is particularly impressive for its advanced capabilities. What is very well understood by the military, but less so by the average citizen, is that modern electronics-based weaponry depends on rare metals for its function [1-3]. Without these resources, including selected rare earth metals, much of this weaponry could not be manufactured. For example, high strength magnets make possible the operation of actuators and sensors involved in transmission of information to weapons allowing them to complete designated tasks. As in domestic and commercial use of iPhones; iPads; computers; and an extensive array of flat, touch-screen devices; the military depends on these and other high-tech products on a continuing basis to accomplish tasks and enable communication between persons, persons and equipment devices, and between devices themselves. These products, and many more, contain technology metals, which have essential, usually irreplaceable, roles in the function of equipment essential to our contemporary society.
Nowhere is the change from low-tech to high-tech applications more evident than in the military . The U.S. is preeminent in its military capabilities because of its development of a vast array of high-tech materials and products capable of extraordinary performance. Aircraft, naval vessel, ground equipment, and personnel are computerized to an impressive degree. Each SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine requires approximately 9,200 pounds of rare earth metals, each DDG-51 Aegis destroyer requires approximately 5,200 pounds, and each F-35 Lightning II aircraft requires approximately 920 pounds [3, p 4]. Structural materials in aircraft and surface vehicles including Navy craft are lighter, more corrosion resistant, operable at higher temperatures, and capable of performing much more sophisticated functions than materials used in the past. These notable advances in performance are made possible by the use of high strength magnets, phosphors, and flat screen devices that respond to touch.
Use of rare earth metals in defense applications has been summarized [3, pp 10-13]. These metals are found in two types of commercially available, permanent magnet materials, i.e. samarium cobalt (SmCo), and neodymium iron boron (NdFeB). These are considered the world’s strongest permanent magnets and are essential to many military weapons systems. SmCo retains its magnetic strength at elevated temperatures and is ideal for military technologies such as precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, and aircraft. The superior strength of NdFeB magnets, which contain a small amount of added dysprosium, allow for the use of smaller and lighter magnets in defense weapon systems. Examples of the use of rare earth metals in a variety of defense-related applications are: (1) fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of the missile; (2) disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centers; (3) lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures; and (4) components of satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; and optical equipment and speakers.
Impressive functional properties are possible because of the unique structural and electronic properties of technology metals including dysprosium, neodymium, samarium, terbium, yttrium, erbium, europium, indium, rhenium, iridium, tantalum, tellurium, and many others. Technology metals are key, indispensable components of the advanced materials and products that characterize our military and civilian societies. Today, these metals are produced in large amounts compared to a few decades ago when only relatively small amounts were used. Annual global usage of rare earth metals, for example, is over 120,000 tonnes (2010), up from a few thousand tonnes 60 years ago [3, p 18; 4]. Increase in usage of technology metals parallels the spectacular transformation of our society over the past few decades to one linked to the prodigious use of high-tech products. Examples are smart phones and computers, which have dramatically changed the way individuals and organizations communicate with each other globally. Their ubiquitous presence worldwide has decreased, by orders of magnitude, the costs once associated with communications and commercial transactions. The benefits associated with this phenomenon are seen most dramatically in the developing world where traditional infrastructures have been the most challenged.
China Controls the Global Rare Earth Metal Supply–Does it Matter?
Few metals are mined in the U.S. in 2016. This creates a reliance on other countries for strategic metals. For example, nearly all of the rare earth elements used today are mined, processed, separated, and purified in China. A major source of rare earth metals in China is the Bayan Obo mine in Inner Mongolia, which is primarily an iron ore mine. Most heavy rare earth metals are mined in South China . In effect, China controls supplies of rare earth and many other high technology metals, which are essential to the civilian and military economies of the U.S. and other nations [1,2,5]. Significant risks are associated with this situation. It does not seem wise for a nation to be dependent on other nations for the supply of metals necessary for the continuation of the domestic, commercial, industrial, and, particularly, military, operations vital for that nation. One is reminded of the proverb attributing the loss of a kingdom to the loss of a horseshoe nail :
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
This quote dates back to a different type of military centuries ago, but the analogy is apt. In a very real sense, large events are dependent on the continuing, uninterrupted availability of very small items. In the case of magnets, samarium, dysprosium and neodymium could be analogous to the nail in the proverb. The difference is that in earlier days everyone could appreciate the message because they were familiar with nails, horseshoes, horses, and the primitive warfare of the day. Today, few citizens are familiar with these metals or are aware of the tenuous position the U.S. and other nations could be in, if they no longer have the capability to produce high-tech products they require, should these metals become unavailable to them. Part of this ignorance stems from a lack of information about the metals involved. In my experience, very few people have heard of key technology metals, such as dysprosium, or any of the other sixty or so specialty metals vital to the functioning of high-tech products that are so important to us. Thus, they are unaware of the potential dangers associated with an interrupted supply of these metals. Perhaps, there would be heightened concern if it were widely realized that one nation, China, controls global supplies of rare earth metals and several other metals of vital interest to our military and civilian economies [1,2]. Is it possible that China would impose trade restrictions on other nations that purchase these metals for manufacture of high-technology products? Ask Japan, where just such an event occurred about five years ago and created an international crisis.
In recent years, ties between China and Japan have been strained by a territorial row over a group of rocks, known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China [1, Chp 2; 2, pp 200-201]. At the heart of the dispute are eight uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea. They have a total area of about 7 sq km and lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan’s southern-most prefecture, Okinawa. The islands are controlled by Japan, but their ownership is contested by China. Ownership is important because these islands are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves. They are also in a strategically significant position, amid rising competition between the U.S. and China for military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
On the morning of Sept. 7, 2010, a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea spotted a Chinese fishing trawler off the coast of these islands. What ensued became international news and quickly involved interruption of export of rare earth metals from China to Japan. Nations, like children and some adults, retaliate to actual or perceived offenses by withholding objects they possess, which the other entity needs or wants, as bargaining tools. The events of the China-Japan controversy were titled The War Over the Periodic Table in a current article in Bloomberg View . This action resulted in Japan suddenly looking for ways to recycle needed rare earth metals from end-of-life magnets. The impasse passed and Japan now deals with China again, but the possibility is always present that China may find it desirable to limit rare earth metal exports to Japan, or other nations.
A National Academy of Sciences Report in 2008  pointed out dramatic changes that had taken place since World War II in global materials supply and demand and implications these changes have for the military sector. In the 1940s, the U.S, was dominant in the production (manufacture) of needed products for domestic, commercial, and military needs using raw materials derived primarily from domestic sources. This situation had changed markedly by the beginning of the 21st century as the economic growth of other nations greatly accelerated, causing increased demand for the same raw materials needed by U.S. defense and civilian industries. By the early 2000s, a significant increase in the foreign supply of manufactured goods entering the U.S. was seen [8, p 12]. These effects have been substantially amplified by 2016. With respect to metals, it is observed in the report  that two effects expedited the change from self-sufficiency to dependence on foreign sources of supply. First, ore grades declined making foreign sources more attractive, and second, environmental awareness and enactment of corresponding legislation raised costs making it difficult to compete with foreign sources, especially in those nations where environmental restrictions either were non-existent or were not enforced. The report notes that “the United States is heavily reliant on one or two countries for many of its most important materials resources and processing capabilities. This reliance has steadily and rapidly increased in recent years.” The Committee generating the Report was concerned that the prevailing belief was that the U.S. will be able to get raw materials it needs on the world market [8, p 13]. A pertinent question is: Would a Nation be willing to risk that?
At first glance, it seems exceedingly risky for a nation to be nearly completely dependent on another nation for its supply of technology metals. The risk is further emphasized by the absence of any meaningful recycling program for these metals. Their recycling rate is <1% globally . Thus, as products containing these metals reach their end-of-life state or as new products are developed incorporating these metals, additional mining of the metals is required to fill demand. This makes the user nation even more dependent on the nation which controls the resource. In the case of the rare earth metals, the controlling nation is China, which has a monopoly of nearly 100% [1,2].
China Moves up the Rare Earth Value Chain: Implications for Other Nations
An even more troubling prospect for the future is the apparent goal of China to move up the rare earth value chain. This concern and its implications for the global economy have been presented and discussed by Abraham [1, p 34]. In the early 1980s, China produced a small fraction of the world’s rare earth metals. By 2005, over 95% of pure, separated rare earth metals were produced in China for sale globally. Production of products containing rare earth metals in China, such as high strength magnets, began in earnest about 1990, but by 2012 over 95% of the global supply of such items were manufactured there. Beyond these items in the value chain lie component manufacturing and, of greatest value, products that rely on the previous items, such as automobiles, wind turbines, magnetic resonance imaging machines, and, of interest to the military community, a whole host of hardware and software that enables a nation to defend itself and, if necessary, carry on successful military operations. Evidence is that China is making consistent progress in entering the last two phases. One projection [1, p 34] suggests that by 2040 China may be producing 80% of the global supply of manufactured items in the last category. This suggests that in the near future even more products could bear the Made in China label and that many more of these products could be high on the value chain with important implications for the security of the U.S. and other nations. In mid-19th century, the U.S. had the technological capability to manufacture any engineered product as long as the raw materials were available. This capability decreased rapidly in the waning years of the 20th century until, today, a significant amount of manufactured goods are supplied by other nations and the U.S. has markedly diminished manufacturing capabilities [8, p 13].
The movement of manufacturing capability from the U.S, and other OECD nations to non-OECD nations, particularly China, has serious implications for the future. Consider high strength magnets, for example, which consume a large fraction of the annual production of the critical rare earth metals, samarium, neodymium, and dysprosium. These magnets are an essential part of civilian and military technology worldwide. A manufacturer in China, which produces a growing fraction of the world’s supply of these magnets, has stated that by the early 2020s the amounts of dysprosium and neodymium produced in China will not be adequate to meet demand . Where will the remaining dysprosium and neodymium be found, since little is presently being produced outside of China? There are few magnet producers outside of China, but these may find it difficult to obtain these rare earth metals, since China needs all of its own production and more to manufacture products. This example provides a compelling reason for developing a reliable domestic source for these metals outside of China. It also suggests that there is a market opportunity here to provide these metals to China and other nations, who will need new sources for their own use.
Abraham [1, p 169] points out that the U.S. military is making efforts to reduce its reliance on foreign sources, but “in the meantime Chinese magnets are critical components of the most advanced U.S, weapon systems, including the F-35.” Lacking a domestic source for dysprosium and neodymium, the U.S. military will be dependent on Chinese sources for these, as well as many other critical metals, into the future. This dependence is an important issue since, as pointed out by Abraham [1, p 168], “The military, a high-tech workforce of over 1.4 million people, uses nearly all the metals that are commercially available in its weapon and computer systems.” As in the nail proverb, lack of small items could have massive downstream effects. Yet, little attention by military or domestic decision makers appears to be paid to the problem as it unfolds before us. Imagine the scenario that the U.S. and China have a serious dispute that extends over time and the U.S. does not have sufficient of the rare earth or other technology metals to maintain its weapons and computer systems. Sounds unlikely, but the dispute between the U.S. and the Soviet Union began in the late-1940s and lasted until 1990. In addition, China could develop a military with greater technological capacity than the U.S., if these critical metals were not available to the U.S. in the quantities required and the U.S. did not have the manufacturing capability to make needed products. A further important point is that over the past three decades no substitutes for the rare earth and several other critical metals in their functions either have been found or are likely to be found [1, pp 28,130], thus, making the economy entirely dependent on the availability of these specific metals.
Rare Earth Production Outside of China
Challenges exist for the creation of rare earth production facilities outside of China. The Mt. Pass mine in California was the principal source of rare earth metals until the late 1990s when two factors led to the closure of the site [2, pp 130-131]. First, Chinese producers of rare earths flooded the market with inexpensive rare earth metals making it no longer cost-effective for these metals to be produced at Mt. Pass. Second, 300,000 gallons of radioactive waste solutions from the mine tailings accidentally spilled across the Mohave Desert in 1997, necessitating a clean-up costing 185 million dollars. The Mt. Pass mine ceased operations in 2002, but was opened under new ownership by MolyCorp in 2008. MolyCorp declared bankruptcy in August 2015 after unsuccessfully attempting to produce rare earth metals from the Mt.Pass facility. Concentrates produced at Mt.Pass were, predominantly, composed of light rare earth metals, and, during operation of the facility since 2008, were sent to China for separation of these metals. Globally, other companies are engaged in developing processing and separation systems, but none, with the exception of Lynas Corporation, has actually produced separated rare earth metals in quantity. However, the Lynas ore processing operation in Malaysia has experienced environmental challenges. It is unlikely that much more than a dent in the >120,000 tonnes of rare earth metals being produced annually in China will be made in the near future by sources outside of China.
MRT: a Reliable Source of Separated Rare Earth Metals
IBC Advanced Technologies, Inc. (IBC), in cooperation with Ucore Rare Metals, Inc. (Ucore), has achieved (1) the separation of the sixteen individual rare earth metals at >99% purity from a pregnant leach solution (PLS) derived from the Bokan-Dotson Ridge mine, and (2) the further separation of the individual rare earth metals from each other in >99% purity [10,11]. The initial complete separation and recovery of the rare earth metals from the PLS not only provides a tremendous economic benefit, but it also means that virtually no rare earth metals are in the tailings, thus conserving the resource. The method used to make the highly metal-selective separations is Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT), which is a commercially proven simple and rapid green chemistry process for metal separations from complex matrices [4,12,13]. MRT operations are carried out in column format. No organic solvents are used and wash and elution chemicals are as benign as possible. Waste generation is minimal and rare earth metal recovery from the PLS approaches 100%.
An MRT pilot plant is currently under construction to produce individually separated rare earth metals . The output of MRT commercial plants will make a source of rare earth metals available for both domestic and international users enabling the U.S. and other nations to become less dependent on China for their rare earth metal supply and will provide rare earth metals for expected increased future global demand.
- Abraham, D.S., The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2015.
- Veronese, K. (2015). Rare: The High Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Grasso, V.B., 2013, December 23, Rare Earth Eements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress, Congressional Research Service 7-5700. Accessed 6 January 2016.
- Izatt, R.M., Izatt, S.R., Bruening, R.L. et al., 2014, Challenges to Achievement of Metal Sustainability in Our High-Tech Society, Chemical Society Reviews, 43, 2451-2475.
- Yang. X. J., Lin, A., Li, X.-L., Wu, Y., Zhou, W., & Chen, C. Q. (2013). China’s ion-adsorption rare earth resources, mining consequences and preservation. Environmental Development, 8, 131-136.
- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, For Want of a Nail, Accessed 6 January 2016.
- Abraham, D.S., Accessed 6 January 2016.
- Latiff, R.H. et al., 2008, Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military, Committee on Assessing the Need for a Defense Stockpile, National Research Council ISBN: 0-309-11258-3, 208 pages, Accessed 6 January 2016.
- JL Mag Rare-Earth Co., Ltd., Ganzhou, Jiangzi Province, 341000 PR China, “JL Mag High End Magnetics,” Presentation at 11th RE Conference, Singapore, 2015, November 9-12.
- Press release (2015, March 2). Molecular Recognition Technology: Environmentally friendly, cost efficient separation of each individual rare earth element, Accessed 16 November 2015.
- Press release (2015, April 28). Ucore updates on the separation of individual rare earth elements, Accessed 22 September 2015.
- Izatt, R.M., Izatt, S.R., Izatt, N.E., Krakowiak, K.E., Bruening, R L., & Navarro, L. (2015). Industrial applications of Molecular Recognition Technology to green chemistry separations of platinum group metals and selective removal of metal impurities from process streams. Green Chemistry, 17, 2236-2245.
- Izatt, S.R., McKenzie, J.S., Bruening, R.L., Izatt, R.M., Izatt, N.E., & Krakowiak, K.E. (2016). Selective recovery of platinum group metals and rare earth metals from complex matrices using a green chemistry-Molecular Recognition Technology approach. In R.M. Izatt (Ed.), Metal Sustainability: Global Challenges, Consequences, and Prospects, Wiley, Oxford, U.K.: Wiley. In Production, publication date 2016.
- Press release (2015, July 8). Ucore commissions design and construction of SuperLig®-One pilot plant, Accessed 25 November 2015.
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Reed M. Izatt received a BS degree in Chemistry from Utah State University (1951) and a PhD degree in Chemistry with an Earth Sciences minor ... <Read more about Reed M. Izatt, PhD>