Archive for October, 2010

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The Cloud Obscuring Green-Tech’s Revolution Road

October 29, 2010

More on REEs as promised.

This has a good overview of some of the main issues.  I’m not entirely sure; however,  what Chameides means at the end of this article.  Perhaps he is more optimistic than me.  I tend to see rampant government incompetence regarding the understanding of issues like the lack of domestic or even “friendly” foreign supplies for these critical metals.  Instead of throwing money at pseudoscience, government could be providing both incentives to restart existing but mothballed domestic mining ops (this includes muzzling some of the more outlandish anti-everything enviro wackos), promoting mining of new sources, and creating a market of post usage recycling to recover REEs.

See: http://www.nicholas.duke.edu/thegreengrok/rare-earths

by Bill Chameides | Mar 31, 2010

The Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave Desert once dominated the mining of rare earths, essential ingredients in many green technologies. Now China dominates, but could others make inroads? (USGS) –(Photo didn’t make the transfer)

The road to the new low-carbon economy might require a detour through China.
They say every cloud has a silver lining. Well, in the case of energy, it seems that every silver lining has a cloud.
Fossil fuels are great sources of energy — they have high-energy density, transportability, relative abundance, and are easily burned [pdf]. But alas, as we all know, there are problems: mining devastation, oil spills, air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions. And so the search for other, cleaner energy sources is on.
So Far, No Perfect Alternative

  • Hydropower? Clean as a mountain stream, but the dams can cause serious ecological problems.
  • Nuclear? Really hot — all that high-voltage power without greenhouse gas pollution. But what about sticky little issues like safety, nuclear waste, and nuclear proliferation?
  • Biomass and biofuels? They look good on paper, but the specter of accelerated deforestation and competition with the production of foodstuffs have added a lot of caveats to the story.
  • Electric cars? Zippy, but mass production will require lots of lithium for their batteries.
  • Wind turbines? A gas, so to speak, but what about the noise and the birds and the eyesore factor.
  • Some say there’s always fusion, but what they really mean is always sometime in the way, way future.

Now another problem with the new green technologies is emerging — rare earth elements.

The Elements Known as Rare Earths
Depending upon which chemist you ask, rare earth elements consist of either:

  • the so-called lanthanide series (elements having atomic numbers from 57 [corresponding to lanthanum] to 71 [corresponding to lutetium]) or
  • the actinide (elements 89 to 103) and lanthanide series.

For our story, only the lanthanides are relevant, so let’s focus on those, along with scandium and yttrium. Despite their name, these elements are not rare. They are orders of magnitude more abundant than the really rare gold and platinum, say.  Their rare-earth moniker comes from the fact they rarely show up in concentrated form in a specific mineral or vein. Instead, they are found in very small concentrations just about everywhere, making it very difficult to extract them in large amounts without lots of expense.

Source: USGS
In the 1950s and 1960s most rare-earth mining occurred in South Africa, India and Brazil where the elements were primarily extracted from the mineral monazite (see photo). But starting in about 1965, the United States began to dominate the rare-earth production from mines inMountain Pass, California.
Two decades later, China became the dominant player in rare-earth mining — at great environmental cost. Today, China is responsible for about 97 percent of the globe’s rare-earth production, according to a recentreport in the journal Science.

Rare Earths and Green Tech
As luck would have it, rare earths are essential to many of the new green technologies we’re betting on to launch the new low-carbon economy. For example:

  • A Prius uses more than two pounds of neodymium in its electric engine and roughly 20-30 pounds of lanthanum in its battery.
  • Samarium and neodymium are essential materials for high-powered magnets used in electrical generators used by wind turbines.
  • Europium and terbium are used in electronic displays like LEDs.

And here’s the rub. As the applications — and thus the demand — for rare earths have grown, their production has not.
One consequence: the price of rare earths has skyrocketed. (Terbium for example can sell for as much as ~$150 a pound.)
Another consequence: China is gaining more and more control over the world’s ability to go the green-energy route through its total dominance of the rare-earth-element market.
To meet its own growing need for the stuff, Beijing has restricted exporting rare earths — shrinking them from 75 percent of total domestic production in the early 2000s to about 25 percent today. Between 2002 and 2008 China’s total production of rare earths grew from about 85 to 140 thousand metric tons per year from but their export declined from about 60 to 40 thousand metric tons per year.

American Response?
Could we be trading a dependence on Middle Eastern oil for a dependence on Chinese rare earths? Not necessarily.
For one, China doesn’t have to have a rare earth monopoly. While most of the world’s oil lies under Middle Eastern sands, we’ve got rare earths (see for here example) — the problem is getting at them economically.
With rising demand and prices, interest in mining for rare earths here in the USA is growing, In fact, ramped-up mining operations for rare earths in Mountain Pass are scheduled to resume in 2012, while exploration of other domestic sources is picking up.  But their extraction and processing, like all mining, have environmental costs — such as the creation of moonscapes, tailing ponds and toxic-waste streams, to name a few. A longer term solution most likely lies with research and development.  And how well are we doing on energy R&D? Not so well — just check out Tom Friedman’s columns on the subject.
And here’s what Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., from the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, had to say in a recent Congressional panel hearing: “rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero.”
The good news is that “virtually zero” is not literally zero. And there’s that silver lining.

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There They Went Again – The 111th Congress fits a familiar Democratic pattern.

October 28, 2010

From the WSJ 10/28/2010. – see here – http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304173704575578410626436120.html?mod=igoogle_wsj_gadgv1&#articleTabs%3Darticle

Democrats and their allies are already rationalizing their likely defeat next Tuesday, variously blaming the economy, GOP obstructionism, corporate money, or an inexplicable collapse in President Obama’s communications skills. Whatever minor truth lies in these excuses, they obscure the larger reality: Americans appear ready to repudiate Democratic governance for the fourth consecutive time.

Far from being a unique historical event, a GOP victory on Tuesday will repeat the pattern we have seen since the 1960s. Four times Democrats have won control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and four times they have attempted to govern from the left. Each time Americans saw that agenda and its results, and they rejected it at an early opportunity. Maybe there’s a lesson here.

***

We cite the 1960s as a watershed because it marked the creation of the modern Democratic Party. The Southern conservatives who had checked the left since the de facto end of the New Deal in 1938 were swept away by LBJ’s 1964 landslide. Democrats implemented their fondest ambitions—the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid—only to lose 47 House seats in 1966 and the White House two years later, as the Democratic coalition split over Vietnam and flower power.

Thanks to Watergate, Democrats returned to overwhelming dominance in 1976. Jimmy Carter had run as a centrist—he favored regulatory reform and sun-setting programs—but he quickly ran afoul of young liberals on Capitol Hill who had flooded into the House in 1974. They overrode Mr. Carter’s spending vetoes and ran his budget director out of town. Democrats avoided major losses in 1978 only to lose both the Senate and White House in the first Reagan landslide amid inflation and gasoline lines.

Their next chance to govern came in 1992, as Bill Clinton won the Presidency after 12 years of GOP dominance. Mr. Clinton ran as a New Democrat, but there were few of those in Congress. Democrats imposed a huge tax increase, put off welfare reform and tried to pass HillaryCare. They lost both houses in 1994, and they wouldn’t reclaim the House for 12 years, amid the near-defeat in Iraq and GOP corruption of 2006. For his part, Mr. Clinton saved his Presidency by moving back to the center.

The fourth great Democratic governing opportunity arrived two years ago as Barack Obama rode his post-partisan rhetoric and the financial panic to the largest win by a Democrat since LBJ. Their House majority swelled to 39 seats, and in the Senate they achieved a filibuster-proof 60 seats. The Republican “brand” was badly tarnished, and pundits heralded a new Democratic era. Amid the Democratic euphoria, New York Senator Chuck Schumer visited our offices and told us to cooperate with this new agenda or we would be irrelevant.

***

Associated Press

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Whatever voters thought they were getting in Mr. Obama, in practice they had elected governance by Congressional Democrats. These are the 1960s liberals whom Mr. Obama has empowered and who have run Washington the last two years:

• David Obey, first elected in 1969, wrote the $814 billion stimulus and directed it toward transfer payments rather than job-producing public works.

• Barney Frank, class of ’80 and patron of Fannie Mae, wrote the financial reform bill with its 243 new rule-makings and enshrinement of too big to fail.

• Henry Waxman, class of ’74, and Ed Markey ’76 wrote the cap-and-tax bill that passed the House but failed when Democrats revolted in the Senate. That vote is now punishing Democrats across the U.S.

• Pete Stark, class of ’72, drove ObamaCare as far left as it could go in the House, insisting on a new payroll tax. This vote will also end many Democratic careers next week.

• George Miller, class of ’74, wrote the federal takeover of the student loan industry and is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s chief enforcer.

• And of course the Speaker herself, first elected in 1987, who famously told Mr. Obama not to compromise on ObamaCare after the Senate election of Scott Brown in January. She would jam the bill through no matter the opposition.

Perhaps Mr. Obama could have imposed more discipline on this crowd, and we advised him early to do so. He chose not to. We suspect he never wanted to, and multiple reports say he overruled then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to side with Mrs. Pelosi on health care. Mr. Obama is responsible for lashing his Presidency to the Speaker’s mast.

It’s especially amusing to hear liberal complaints about the 111th Congress, because the reality is that Democrats have achieved most of what they set out to do. With only 40 Senate votes, Republicans couldn’t stop a whisper until Mr. Brown arrived, and even then they let through financial reform and another round of stimulus spending. From her liberal perch, Mrs. Pelosi has a point when she laments that Democrats aren’t getting credit for their legislative achievements. And our guess is that soon after November 2 the lads at MSNBC and the New York Times will speak of this as a liberal Golden Age and defend its every act.

Mrs. Pelosi’s real problem is with the American people. They understand what Democrats have achieved, and they dislike it. They thought they had elected a President who would focus on the economy, but instead they got the most far-reaching liberal social policies since the 1960s. Those policies have frightened business and produced a capital and hiring strike.

Americans were told the $814 billion stimulus would hold the jobless rate below 8%, but two years later it is 9.6% and the economic recovery has stalled. They were promised fiscal restraint, and instead they got spending at a postwar high of 25% of GDP. They were told ObamaCare would lower insurance costs, but so far it has produced only higher costs and fewer health-care choices. They were promised a tax cut, but they can see tax increases coming next year, in 2013, and later to pay for all the spending. This is what has driven the electorate to the verdict it will render on Tuesday.

***

The irony is that the Democrats most likely to lose next week are centrists and Blue Dogs in the most competitive election districts. Most liberals hold relatively safe seats, and their worst fear is that they’ll lose their chairmanships. The exception is Mrs. Pelosi, who would lose her speakership and perhaps resign if Democrats lose their majority. But we suspect she has long believed that losing was possible but worth the risk to pass ObamaCare. You have to break a few careers to make a European entitlement state.

The larger lesson is that we are learning for the fourth time in 45 years that America can’t be governed from the left. Democrats exploited the recession and the accident of 60 Senate seats to push the agenda of their dreams, and the American public has recoiled at the effrontery and the results. Repairing the damage of the 111th Congress will take years, and perhaps decades, but the first step is ousting the liberals who once again drove their party off a cliff.

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Kvanefjeld Project – Rare Earth Elements, Uranium, Sodium Fluoride

October 28, 2010

From Geology.com  http://geology.com/news/ – One of the largest rare earth projects currently moving towards production is the Kvanefjeld Project near the southern tip of Greenland. They have drilled over 45,000 meters of diamond core into the Ilimaussaq Intrusive Complex to identify rare earth metals, sodium fluoride,uranium and zinc resources.

Kvanefjeld is an emerging multi-element deposit hosted within marginal phases of the Ilimaussaq Intrusive Complex, located near the southwest tip of Greenland. The deposit is exposed at surface along a series of undulating bluffs on a broad peninsula surrounded by deepwater fjords that run directly out to the Atlantic Ocean. Greenland Minerals and Energy acquired the project in mid-2007 and immediately launched a field program that included airborne radiometric and magnetic surveys, environmental studies, geological investigations and a 10,000m diamond drill program.

The 2007 drill program and geological work formed the basis for a first JORC-compliant resource estimation for the Kvanefjeld deposit that was announced to the Australian Securities Exchange in May, 2008. The resource was subsequently updated in August 2008 as more assay data from the 2007 drill program became available. The results of the 2007 field program were considered extremely encouraging, and in 2008 the company undertook a second large-scale exploration program during which a further 19,300 m of core were drilled. The majority of these meters were drilled into Kvanefjeld, with the aim to improve the JORC resource category from “Inferred” to “Indicated”, as well as increasing the overall resource base. This aim was certainly acheived, and Kvanefjeld is now clearly one of the largest multi-element deposits of its kind globally. During the 2008 field season, a number of new multi-element targets were also drill tested (see “New Multi-Element Targets and Overall Resource Potential”).

The latest resource statement was released to the Australian Securities Exchange in June, 2009 (see below). Zinc has been included in the resource statement after indicative metallurgical test-work suggests that the metal will report with the rare earth elements, where it could be recovered as a separate product.
Resources

Kvanefjeld multi-element resource statement, June, 2009

At U3O8%
Tonnes
U3O8%2
U3O8 lb/t
TREO%3
Zn%
Resource
cutoff grades1
(million)
category
0.015
365
0.028
0.62
1.06
0.22
Indicated
92
0.027
0.59
1.12
0.22
Inferred
457
0.028
0.62
1.07
0.22
TOTAL
0.020
276
0.032
0.70
1.13
0.23
Indicated
63
0.031
0.69
1.21
0.24
Inferred
339
0.032
0.70
1.14
0.23
TOTAL
0.025
207
0.035
0.77
1.20
0.23
Indicated
43
0.036
0.78
1.31
0.25
Inferred
250
0.035
0.77
1.22
0.24
TOTAL


1 – There is greater coverage of assays for uranium than other elements owing to historic spectral assays. U3O8 has therefore been used to define the cutoff grades to maximise the confidence in the resource calculations.
2 – Additional decimal places do not imply an added level of precision.
3 – Total Rare Earth Oxide (TREO) refers to the rare earth elements in the Lanthanide series plus yttrium.
Note:Figures quoted may not sum due to rounding.

Inferred resources of sodium fluoride (NaF)

At NaF%
Tonnes
NaF%
Resource
cutoff grades
(million)
category
0.10
363
0.85
Inferred
0.50
191
1.36
Inferred
1.00
116
1.77
Inferred

1- Sodium fluoride remains under sampled in comparison to REOs, zinc and uranium, and, therefore the resource category is only inferred. The NaF resource is contained within the same geological model as that used to calculate the TREO, U3O8, and Zn resources.

This new resource statement estimates the inventory of contained metal within a 457 Mt ore body to be:

4.91 Mt of Total Rare Earth Oxide (TREO), 0.99 Mt and Zinc, 0.12 Mt of Uranium Oxide (283 Mlbs), and 3.09 Mt of NaF

All resource figures are JORC compliant. Resource estimates were calculated by Hellman and Schofield Pty Ltd (http://www.hellscho.com.au).
Geology

The Kvanefeld REE-U deposit is hosted within the Ilimaussaq Complex, southern Greenland. The Ilimaussaq Complex is a layered alkaline intrusive complex that formed in a continental rift setting approximately 1.16 billion years ago. It has been the subject of many scientific studies and is considered to represent the type-example of a rare group of rocks that are referred to as agpaitic; the term ascribed to an unusual suite of peralkaline nepheline syenites. The intrusion is roughly 17 x 8 km and features distinct magmatic layering. Block faulting has disrupted the continuity of the layering across the intrusion such that different levels are exposed at different locations.

Formation of the intrusion is attributed to four successive pulses of magma. The first produced an augite syenite, which now forms a marginal shell. This was followed by intrusion of a sheet of peralkaline granite. The third and fourth stages make up the bulk of the intrusion and are peralkaline to agpaitic in composition. The third batch of magma differentiated to produce pulaskite, foyaite and naujaite. Stage four produced the agpaitic kakortokites and lujavrites, which are the units of particular economic significance. These rock types formed from volatile-rich alkaline magmas that were extremely enriched in incompatible elements such as rare earth elements, uranium, and high-field-strength elements such as niobium and tantalum. Economic concentrations of rare earth elements and uranium generally occur in the upper most lujavrite sections.

The majority of multi-element mineralisation (REEs, U, Zn and NaF) occurs as disseminations within the lujavrite, with a small component hosted in veins and disseminations in wallrocks adjacent to the lujavrite. Steenstrupine, an unusual phospho-silicate mineral, is the dominant host to both REEs and uranium, with the minerals cerite and vitusite also hosting REEs in portions of the deposit. Sodium fluoride is largely hosted by the mineral villuamite that is disseminated through some lujavrites. Zinc is hosted in the mineral sphalerite that also occurs as disseminations within lujavrite.

Kvanefjeld occurs inside the northwestern margin of the Ilimaussaq Complex where a thick interval of upper lujavrite outcrops along a series bluffs. Locally, other occurrences of upper lujavrite have been identified, and these are being evaluated by geophysical surveys, geological mapping, and diamond drilling, and have the potential to be significant new multi-element deposits. As multi-element ores are largely formed from a specific magmatic unit, they have very good continuity and consistency.

Map of the Ilimaussaq Complex highlighting the location of the Kvanefjeld REE-U deposit, as well as a series of new multi-element exploration targets labeled K2 through to K8.
References

Bailey, J.C., Sorensen, H., Andersen, T., Kogarko, L.N., Rose-Hansen, J., 2006. On the origin of microrhythmic layering in arfvedsonite lujavrite from the Ilimaussaq alkaline complex, South Greenland. Lithos,  v. 91, p 301-318.

Ferguson, J., 1964. Geology of the Ilímaussaq alkaline intrusion, South Greenland. Bulletin Grønlands Geologiske Undersøgelse v. 39, p. 82. (also Meddelelser om Grønland 172(4)).

Rose-Hansen, J., Sørensen, H., 2002. Geology of lujavrites from the Ilímaussaq alkaline complex, South Greenland with information from seven bore holes. Greenland Geoscience v. 40 p. 58.

Sørensen, H., 1962. On the occurrence of steenstrupine in the Ilímaussaq massif, southwest Greenland. Bulletin Grønlands Geologiske Undersøgelse v. 32, p. 251. (also Meddelelser om Grønland 167(1)).

Sørensen, H., 1992. Agpaitic nepheline syenites: a potential source of rare elements. Applied Geochemistry, v. 7, p. 417-427.

Sørensen, H., 2001. Brief introduction to the geology of the Ilímaussaq alkaline complex, South Greenland, and its exploration history. Geology of Greenland Survey Bulletin v. 190, p. 7–24.

Sørensen, H., Bohse, H., Bailey, J.C., 2006. The origin and mode of emplacement of lujavrites in the Ilímaussaq alkaline complex, South Greenland. Lithos, v. 91, p. 286-300.

Steenfelt, A., 1991. High-technology metals in alkaline and carbonatitic rocks in Greenland: recognition and exploration. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, v. 40, p. 263-279.

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China’s Ace in the Hole: Rare Earth Elements

October 27, 2010

You will undoubtedly be hearing a whole lot more about Rare Earths (REEs) in the next few months.  Most people will be baffled about what they are, but everyone uses them in all the “high tech” devices that permeate modern society.  TVs, computers, cell phones, flash memory drives, hybrids and all electric cars, trucks , uses REEs  ( the benchmark of the hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius, uses 60 pounds per car).  This article I “stole” from the Natural Defense University  (NDU) Press’s Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ) October 2010 edition.    Unfortunately I still cannot seem to get the accompanying photos with the text.  It is worth it to follow the link to get the photos with the text.   The link is

http://www.ndu.edu/press/chinas-ace-in-the-hole.html

I intend to post some follow ups on REEs in the future, so check back!

By Cindy A. Hurst – Lieutenant Commander Cindy A. Hurst, USNR, is a Research Analyst in the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

On February 4, 2010, nearly 2 weeks after the Obama administration unveiled a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan, a Chinese article posted on an online Chinese Communist Party–connected daily newspaper site, as well as on many Chinese blogs and military news sources, suggested banning the sale of rare earth elements (REEs) to U.S. companies as retribution.1 There was already ample Western concern about potential diminishing access to supplies of REEs, particularly after a 2009 draft report written by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, ytterbium, thulium, and lutetium, and a restriction of neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum exports.2 The report immediately caused an uproar among rare earth buyers because China produces approximately 97 percent of the world’s REEs. While there are sources of rare earth around the world, it could take anywhere from 10 to 15 years from the time of discovery to begin a full-scale rare earth operation.

REEs are important to hundreds of high-tech applications, including critical military-based technologies such as precisionguided weapons and night-vision goggles. In exploring the idea of global military might, China appears to be holding an unlikely trump card. The country’s grasp on the rare earth element industry could one day give China a strong technological advantage and increase its military superiority. This article focuses on rare earth elements and their importance to military technology. It also demonstrates how China’s research and development programs, coupled with its vast reserves of REEs, have the potential to make the country a dominant force in the world.

Background

REEs are those chemical elements on the periodic table having atomic numbers 57 through 71 (known as the lanthanides), scandium, and yttrium (atomic numbers 21 and 39). Scandium and yttrium are generally grouped with the lanthanides because of their similar properties and because they are normally found within the same deposits when mined.

The term rare earth is actually a misnomer; these elements are not rare at all, being found in low concentrations throughout the Earth’s crust and in higher concentrations in certain minerals. REEs can be found in almost all massive rock formations. However, their concentrations range from ten to a few hundred parts per million by weight. Therefore, finding them where they can be economically mined and processed presents a challenge.

For at least the past five decades, international scientists and engineers have understood the importance of REEs to military technology. For some, the topic of rare earth has even been shrouded in secrecy. For example, in Russia, REEs were once considered a national secret, with little mention being made about them prior to 1993. Their secret applications were long confined to those organizations, such as the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, Ministry of Nuclear Energy, and Ministry of Nonferrous Metallurgy, that were responsible for the research, design, and production of military equipment and weapons systems. The reason for their secrecy was simple. More than 80 percent of the rare earth industry went into the former Soviet Union’s defense systems.3

Today, many foreign and domestic analysts view REEs as a key factor in developing modern military technology. For example, one Chinese article attributed “night vision instruments with the REE lanthanum” as a “source of the overwhelming dominance of U.S. military tanks during the Gulf War.”4 In China, REEs have been described as a “treasure trove” of new material and the “vitamins of modern industry.”5 REEs have also been described as “materials of the future.”6

In 1993, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, first deputy director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, reportedly sent a letter about REEs to Oleg Soskovets, the Russian Federation’s first vice premier, saying, “We have been receiving information indicating that advanced industrial countries are making increasing use of REEs due to progress in creating and developing qualitatively new, specialized materials with them that increase the critical parameter values of high technology products in the fields of rocket-space and aviation, microelectronics, and electrical engineering.”7

Not only are REEs used to greatly improve the qualities and properties in the metallurgy industry, they are also used in the fields of lasers, fluorescents, magnets, fiber optic communications, hydrogen energy storage, and superconducting materials— all key technologies that have been successfully applied to modern militaries.8

Military Applications

Of course, not all REEs are created equal. Some experts predict that by 2015 there will be a shortage of neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium, while supplies of europium, erbium, and yttrium could become tight.9 The neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) permanent magnets are so strong that they are ideal for the miniaturization of a variety of technologies, including possible nanotechnologies. Many solid state lasers use neodymium due to its optimal selection of absorption and emitting wavelengths. Consumption of neodymium is expected to increase significantly as more wind turbines come online. Wind may be “free,” but some of the newer generation wind turbines use up to two tons of these magnets. Terbium and dysprosium can be additives to enhance the coercivity in NdFeB magnets.10 Yttrium is used, along with neodymium, in lasers. Europium is the most reactive of the REEs. Along with its current use in phosphors for fluorescent lamps and television/computer screens, it is being studied for possible use in nuclear reactors.11 Erbium is used as an amplifier for fiber optic data transmission. It has also been finding uses in nuclear applications and metallurgy. For example, adding erbium to vanadium, a metal used in nuclear applications and high-speed tools, lowers the hardness and improves the workability of the metal.

Samarium is another REE used in military applications. Samarium is combined with cobalt to create a permanent magnet with the highest resistance to demagnetization of any material known. Because of its ability to withstand higher temperatures without losing its magnetism, it is essential in both aerospace and military applications. Precision-guided munitions use samarium-cobalt (SmCo) permanent magnet motors to direct the flight control surfaces (fins). SmCo can also be used as part of stealth technology in helicopters to create white noise to cancel or hide the sound of the rotor blades. These magnets are used in defense radar systems as well as in several types of electronic countermeasure equipment, such as the Tail Warning Function.12

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, substitutes are available for many rare earth applications, but they are generally less effective. 13 Steven Duclos, chief scientist with General Electric Global Research asserts, “There’s no question that rare earths do have some properties that are fairly unique, but for many applications these properties are not so unique that you cannot find similar properties in other materials. [REEs] are just better, from either a weight, strength, or optical property and that’s why people have moved to them.” Duclos went on to explain, “It always comes down to a tradeoff. You can build a motor that does not have rare earth permanent magnets in it. It will be bigger and heavier for a given amount of power or torque that you want.”14

Some scientists argue that in many cases, while there may be substitutes, the tradeoff would diminish military superiority. According to George Hadjipanayis, a Richard B. Murray Chair Professor of Physics at the University of Delaware, the alnico and ferrite magnets, the first two permanent magnets ever produced, do not have rare earth in them and their performance is much lower. Hadjipanayis is currently working with a group of researchers to develop a “next generation magnet” that will be stronger than either the NdFeB or SmCo magnets. The project is being conducted using a three-tiered approach:15

  • The University of Nebraska is striving to develop a permanent magnet that does not require rare earth.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa is pursuing options that might use new materials based on combinations of rare earths, transition metals, and possibly other elements that have not been used with magnets before.
  • The University of Delaware is striving to create a new magnetic material that is based on an idea of “nano-composite” magnets. It is a complex process that could slash the use of neodymium or samarium in magnets by 30 or 40 percent.16

Rare earth permanent magnets constitute the widest use of REEs. In the 1960s, the United States was number one in the research and development of magnets. The Nation enjoyed many technological breakthroughs until about the early 1980s. Since the discovery of the NdFeB magnet in 1983, research and development in the United States has been relatively flat.17

Chinese Influence

The Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California, owned by Molycorp Minerals, was once the largest rare earth supplier in the world. Through the 1990s, however, China’s exports of rare earth elements grew, causing prices worldwide to plunge. This undercut business for Molycorp and other producers around the world, and eventually either drove them out of business or significantly reduced production efforts. According to sources within the industry, rare earth deposits in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa could be mined by 2014.18 Some experts, such as Professor Jean-Claude Bunzli from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, argue that the quantities of rare earth in military technology are low enough that diminishing supplies from China should not be an issue due to Western mining operations coming on line soon. Still, even if plans to open up new and renewed Western operations do come through, the bigger issue may well be China’s growing emphasis in the research and development of REEs, as compared to U.S. efforts, which have decreased dramatically.

The United States paved the way for many of today’s modern technologies that China is now capable of exploiting. Part of that effort has entailed scientists focusing on and dissecting the properties and uses of REEs. From about the 1940s to the 1990s, REEs attracted interest in both the U.S. and Chinese academic and scientific communities. Today, however, there are only a small handful of scientists who truly focus on REEs in the United States.

China, on the other hand, has established entire laboratories and teams devoted to the study of REEs. It has various highprofile national programs, such as Program 863 (National High-tech Research and Development) and Program 973 (National Basic Research). While these programs were not put into place to specifically support rare earth– based projects, they are important to China’s rare earth industry. These programs offer millions of dollars of government funding for military and civilian research projects that are meant to narrow the technological gap between China and the rest of the world and to give China a foothold in the world arena. China has a keen forward thinking ability. Its planners pinpoint a potential problem or strength years in advance. Then over time, the country begins to build a strong foundation to achieve its end goal. In 1992, during his visit to Bayan Obo, China’s largest rare earth mine, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared, “There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China.”19 Seven years later, President Jiang Zemin wrote, “Improve the development and application of rare earth, and change the resource advantage into economic superiority.”20 Wang Minggin and Dou Xuehong, both from the China Rare Earth Information Center at the Baotou Research Institute of Rare Earth in Inner Mongolia, published a paper in 1996 entitled “The History of China’s Rare Earth Industry.” They wrote, “China’s abrupt rise in its status as a major producer, consumer, and supplier of rare earths and rare earth products is the most important event of the 1980s in terms of development of rare earths.”21

China knew what it had even before the 1990s. The country established the General Research Institute for Nonferrous Metals in 1952. In the 1950s, the Bayan Obo mine was built and operated as the iron ore base of the Baotou Iron and Steel Company. In the late 1950s, China began recovering rare earths during the process of producing iron and steel. Since the 1960s, China has emphasized maximizing the use of Bayan Obo, which is located in Inner Mongolia, 80 miles north of Baotou. This effort included employing people to find more effective ways to recover the rare earths. Along with trying to improve separation techniques, China also began other research and development efforts. In 1963, they established the Baotou Research Institute of Rare Earths.

There are two state key laboratories in China: the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Materials Chemistry and Applications, which is affiliated with Peking University in Beijing; and the State Key Laboratory of Rare Earth Resource Utilization, in Changchun, in the northern province of Jilin.

Globally, there are two journals dedicated to the research and study of REEs: the Journal of Rare Earth and China Rare Earth Information (CREI) Journal, both put out by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths. The society was founded in 1980 and comprises tens of thousands of registered scientific and technical researchers of rare earths.22 The number of U.S. scientists devoted to the research and study of REEs today pales in comparison to the vast number in China.

Meanwhile, China had been looking at ways to effectively use REEs in military applications as far back as the early 1960s, when its weapons industry began applied research in the areas of armor and artillery steel. The country produced special rare earth armor steels that became beneficial in manufacturing tanks. In the mid-1960s, China created rare earth carbon steel, the transverse impact value of which was a 70 to 100 percent improvement over the raw carbon steel originally used. Firing tests on the shooting range proved that large-caliber cartridges made with the rare earth armor steels were able to fully meet technical requirements.23

Since 1963, China has been using rare earth ductile iron in mortar projectiles, which was said to have doubled or tripled the dynamic properties of the projectiles, increasing the number of effective kill fragments several times over and sharpening the fragment edges, which greatly improved the kill power. Prior to using the rare earth ductile iron in mortar projectiles, China used semisteel made from high-quality pig iron with 30 to 40 percent scrap steel as the material for pre-chambers of projectile bodies. These older projectile body pre-chambers proved to be much lower in strength, were highly brittle, and produced few effective kill fragments after detonation. In addition, they were not sharp.24

Rare earth magnesium alloys are fairly strong and lightweight, making them ideal for aircraft. The China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) has reportedly developed 10 brands of rare earth magnesium alloys. For example, the “ZM6″cast magnesium alloy, which has neodymium as the main rare earth additive, is being used extensively in such functions as the casings for rear brakes on helicopters, ribs for fighter wings, and rotor lead plates for 30-kilowatt generators. Another high-strength rare earth magnesium alloy, known as “BM25,” which was jointly developed by AVIC and China’s Nonferrous Metal Corporation, has replaced some mediumstrength aluminum alloys and is being used for attack aircraft.25 China had been looking at ways to effectively use REEs in military applications as far back as the early 1960s

Along with creating more efficient metal alloys, China has carefully studied numerous other uses of REEs, many of which have been used and developed in the United States and by some U.S. allies. These technologies include rare earths as combustibles in bombs; nuclear applications, including military defense, nuclear radiation shielding, and tank thermal radiation shielding technologies; permanent magnets with magnetic properties that are “a hundred times stronger than the magnetic steel used in military equipment in the 1970s”; lasers, including laser rangefinders, laser guidance, and laser communication systems; superconducting materials; sonar; and others.26

In April 2006, Li Zhonghua, a senior engineer, along with Zhang Weiping and Liu Jiaxiang, all from China’s Hunan Rare Earth Materials Research Academy, published a paper entitled “Application and Development Trends of Rare Earth Materials in Modern Military Technology.” After giving a point-bypoint narration on the special roles REEs play in modern technology, the authors concluded that there is a close relationship between rare earths and modern military technology. They also noted that the development of the rare earth industry has greatly pushed forward the overall progress of modern military technology, and the heightening of military technology has in turn driven the flourishing growth of the rare earth industry.27

Most press reports today express concern about the future supply and demand of REEs and China’s tightening supplies due to the country’s own growing domestic needs. Yet there is little mention made regarding China’s research and development efforts, which probably deserve the most attention since research and development is the driving force behind China’s increasing success.

More Players

Seeing the potential that REEs hold in modern technologies has likely fueled research and development in other countries, such as North Korea and Iran. For example, in 1988, North Korea formed the Korea International Chemical Joint Venture Company (other names include Chosun [or Choson] International Chemicals Joint Operation Company) to produce REEs from the mineral monazite. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the plant was reportedly designed to use solvent extraction technology acquired from China’s Yue Long Chemical Plant near Shanghai.28Production began in 1991. The monazite is said to come from the Ch’olsan Uranium Mine near Ch’olsan-kun in P’yong’an Province. The Hamhung plant reportedly has the capacity to process 1,500 tons per year of monazite, from which 400 tons of rare earth metals and oxides can be processed.29

In June 2009, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il visited the Hamhung Semiconductor Materials Factory and the Hamhung Branch of the State Academy of Sciences, where he stressed the need to boost production capacity and the need to accelerate technical updating of the factory to increase the production of rare earth metals. During a campaign to build up the country’s research efforts, Kim visited several areas and spoke to the scientists and technicians of the Hamhung Branch. He was accompanied by members of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, including Ju Kyu Chang, a member of the National Defense Commission and First Vice Director of the Ministry of Defense Industry, and the department directors in Organization and Instruction, Financial Planning, and Administration.30

Iran has also embarked on research and development efforts. As early as 1998, its Laser Research Center is believed to have been producing indigenous neodyn [neodymium] yttrium-aluminum (Nd:YAG) lasers, using laser crystals.31

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Alexander Portnov, a professor specializing in geological and mineral sciences, wrote, “There can be no talk of developing nanotechnology if the country does not produce and use rare elements.” Portnov argues that a country’s extraction, production, and use of rare metals needed for technological innovation are “a precise indicator of its scientific and technical development.”32

It is possible that suitable alternatives to REEs could one day be discovered. In the meantime, however, REEs are critical to many modern technologies. China has recognized the value of REEs for over five decades. While the United States today leads in technological innovation, China’s position in the rare earth industry and its vast reserves and ability to mine and produce them, coupled with its intense research and development efforts, could one day give it a decisive advantage in military-based technologies. The U.S. military must plan for this eventuality and take appropriate actions today if it expects to maintain its lead in military technology. JFQ

Notes

1 Wang Dake, “Consider Banning the Sale of Rare Earth as Sanctions Against U.S. Companies,” Shanghai Dongfang Zaobao [Chinese], February 4, 2010, available at http://www.dfdaily.com.
2 Articles discussing the report stated that yttrium was one of the elements expected to be banned. This is likely an error. Ytterbium is much less abundant than yttrium. See Ambrose Evans- Pritchard, “World Faces Hi-Tech Crunch as China Eyes Ban on Rare Metal Exports,” Telegraph, August 24, 2009.
3 “Russia’s Rare Earth, By Way of Prologue: Two Quotes from One Letter,” Interfax AIF, January 29, 1999.
4 “Chinese Government Wins Initial Success in Fight to Protect Tungsten, Antimony, and Rare Earth Elements,” Chinese Government Net [Chinese], May 7, 2009.
5 Li Zhonghua, Zhang Weiping, and Liu Jiaxiang, “Application and Development Trends of Rare Earth Materials in Modern Military Technology,” Hunan Rare-Earth Materials Research Academy [Chinese], April 16, 2006.
6 “Russia’s Rare Earth, By Way of Prologue.”
7 Ibid.
8 Li, Zhang, and Liu.
9 Robin Bromby, “Caution, Rare Earths Ahead,” The Australian, April 26, 2010, available atwww.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/caution-rare-earths-ahead/story-e6frg9ex-1225858477751.
10 Magnets will lose their magnetism at certain elevated temperatures. Neodymium can only be used at near room temperatures. Adding the terbium or dysprosium gives it a higher coercivity, which allows the magnet to withstand higher temperatures before losing magnetism.
11 Europium sesquioxide (Eu203) has been tested as neutron absorbers for control rods in (fast breeder) nuclear reactors. Jean-Claude Bunzli, email correspondence with author, April 29, 2010.
12 James B. Hedrick, “Rare Earths in Selected U.S. Defense Applications,” paper presented at the 40th Forum on the Geology of Industrial Minerals, Bloomington, IN, May 2–7, 2004.
13 “Rare Earth,” U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2009, 131.
14 Steven Duclos, telephone interview with author, March 2, 2010.
15 Jeremy Hsu, “Scientists Race to Engineer a New Magnet for Electronics,” Live Science, April 10, 2010.
16 Ibid.
17 For more information on the history of China’s rare earth industry, read Cindy A. Hurst, China’s Rare Earth Elements Industry: What Can the West Learn? (Washington, DC: Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, March 2010), available at www.iags.org/rareearth0310hurst.pdf.
18 “Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain,” Government Accountability Office in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Pub. L. No. 111-84), April 14, 2010.
19 “Rare Earth: An Introduction,” Baotou National Rare-Earth Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, accessed April 28, 2010.
20 Ibid.
21 Wang Minggin and Dou Xuehong, “The History of China’s Rare Earth Industry,” in Episodes from the History of the Rare Earth Elements, ed. C.H. Evans (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996), 131–147.
22 According to the China’s Society of Rare Earths Web site, there are more than 100,000 “registered experts.” However, approximately onequarter to one-third of these “experts” are likely administrative personnel.
23 Li, Zhang, and Liu.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Solvent extraction technology was originally developed in the United States, then bettered by the French company Rhône Poulenc, which became Rhodia. In the 1980s and 1990s, this was the best separation technology available. Eventually, after much hesitation, Rhodia transferred the technology to Baotou under the form of a joint venture in Baotou, China.
29 James B. Hedrick, “Rare Earths,” U.S. Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook, 2002, 61.7.
30 “Kim Jong Il Provides Field Guidance to Factory and Scientific Institution,” KCNA, June 30, 2009, available athttp://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2009/200906/news30/20090630-26ee.html.
31 The original source of this information breaks out Nd:YAG as neodymium:ytterbiumaluminum garnet lasers. This is likely inaccurately depicted since the Nd:YAG is produced with yttrium, and not ytterbium. See Charles D. Ferguson and Jack Boureston, “IAEA Pubs Iranian Laser- Enrichment Technology in the Spotlight,” Jane’s Regional Security Issues, June 18, 2004. 32 Alexander Portnov, “The Metallic Aftertaste of Scientific Progress,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 10, 2008.