They’re used to build everything from stealth choppers to lasers and night vision goggles. They’re even essential to making smartphones and hybrid cars. They’re rare earths, 17 hard-to-find chemical elements with unique physical and chemical properties: Some are superconductive, others are amazingly heat-resistant. It makes the rare earths very much in demand — especially at the Pentagon. The problem is, 95 percent of their market is controlled by China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Now, to solve its rare earth elements woes, the Department of Defense is taking a two-pronged approach: They’re asking the scientific community to come up with innovative ways to mine these scarce materials in the United States, and find alternative materials to make rare earths unnecessary.
“The Department of Defense relies on many products that incorporate materials that are not found or produced in sufficient quantities domestically to meet potential crucial defense needs,” states the Office of the Secretary of Defense in a solicitation for research proposals, published at the end of July.
The geopolitical implications of rare earths are nothing new. In 2009 Congress was already asking the Pentagon to look for alternatives and lessen the U.S. dependency on foreign imports after the Chinese government said it was considering limiting exports of the minerals. Rare earths are not rare in nature, they’re just very hard to find in heavy concentration, and extracting them is both extremely expensive and environmentally dangerous.
For all these reasons, the DoD would like to find ways to produce more rare earth elements here in the States. The first proposal is to find a way to improve separation. Rare earth elements are often found in minerals along with different elements and need to be separated from the rest, less valuable ones. It’s an elaborate, multi-stage process that it’s really hard to master and needs expensive tools. (In fact, U.S.-based mineral extraction company Molycorp Minerals used to ship rare earths to China for final separation.) The Pentagon wants a more effective separation done with the so-called froth flotation, a chemical process to distill elements using water and air bubbles.
Efficiency is not the only concern. The Pentagon wants new, environmentally “less-aggressive techniques,” to separate rare earth elements from minerals. Finding new ways to do it “would improve the availability, decrease the costs of extraction, and decrease the environmental impact of the extraction,” says the proposal.
Recycling is another solution. For example, the DoD is pushing to improve the recovery of rhenium, a rare earth element that is key to produce the new stealth Joint Strike Fighters for its exceptional heat-resistant properties.
If all else fails, the DoD would like to just get rid of rare earth elements and find new, alternative compounds that could have the same properties. The plans is to use computer models to find techniques to “change the elemental composition of a material to obviate the need for expensive, rare or hard to find elements.”
Meanwhile, after a U.S., Japan and EU complaint, the World Trade Organization has opened an investigation into China’s rare earths export policies, which could shake up the market. Also, China’s de-facto monopoly has caused prices to soar. For instance, from 2010 to 2011, neodymium’s price jumped from $42 per kilogram to $283. This has prompted companies around the world to start mining somewhere else. Molycorp is currently expanding its Mountain Pass mine, in California, which once was the largest rare earth mine in the world.
John Kaiser, a mining analyst and editor of Kaiser Research Online, told Wired Science that “in five years there will be rare earths produced all over the world and China will lose its edge.”
The Department of Energy has been working on identifying which minerals are essential for the future of energy innovation and which ones could cause geopolitical headaches since last year. These proposals seem to indicate that the Pentagon has finally gotten the memo and has decided to stop relying on the Chinese, how successful this new push for rare earth elements independence remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, the U.S. needs to act now. “Unless America gets ahead of this problem,” wrote defense policy analyst Christine Parthemore on Danger Room last year, “the United States will be unnecessarily ceding strategic advantage to commodity suppliers — all over pretty modest quantities of rocks and metals. Minerals should not command foreign policy or derail defense procurement.”