Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Oil Dependence Ain't Nothing Compared To Our Dependence on Rare Metals

Brad Plummer offers a really outstanding discussion of a national security issue that we rarely hear much about--our dependence on over 60 different metals that we have come to depend on for our modern economy.  The challenge, according to a  recent paper in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science is that there are very few good substitutes for these metals.  A shortage in any could cause great economic damage.  Plummer explores the implications:
The study notes that there's plenty of ongoing research into things like advanced composite materials. But substitution can be a slow process and performance can suffer in the meantime.
That's troubling, they note, because the risks of materials disruptions are real — even if they're only temporary. "No country or region, in fact, has substantial deposits of everything; platinum comes largely from South Africa and Russia, copper from Chile and the United States, strontium from China and Spain, and so on." Case in point: China now dominates the supply of "rare earth" metals — when it throttled exports, other countries had to scramble to adjust.
"The consequence," the authors conclude, "is that modern technology is dependent on resources from every continent other than Antarctica, a situation that increases the potential for geopolitical machinations as far as resources."
Read it all here.    The full report of the Proceedings study is worth reviewing for those really interested in the problem.  You should also check out Plummer's previous discussions of China's stranglehold over rare metals here as well as his post on how nations responded when China started to limit exports of these here.

So what do we do about this?

1 comment:

  1. For states like Arizona, with extensive copper mining past and present, this could be the beginning of an economic boom, since many of the rare metals now sought and highly valued are "tagalongs" to previously mined copper. In Bisbee, where I own a second home, it is no stretch to points to mountains formed from a century's worth of mine tailings and proclaim "There's gold in them thar hills!"