THE GEOPOLITICS OF RARE EARTH ELEMENTS: EMERGING CHALLENGE FOR U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY AND ECONOMICS.

Author:Chapman, Bert
Position::Report
 
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Introduction

Multiple factors influence the formulation and implementation of U.S. foreign and national security policy. Besides the numerous economic, political, and psychological factors in such policymaking, the role of accessing and having dependable supplies to natural resources plays a paramount role. Most observers of international relations and security are familiar with the importance of oil and natural gas in these areas. More attention, however, needs to be devoted to the role played by other natural resources, including minerals, in U.S. foreign and national security policies. The role of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) is of particular importance due to the weakness of the U.S.' domestic REE industry and its dependence on foreign suppliers, particularly China, for its access to these materials which have become deeply interwoven into the U.S.' civilian economy and to its national security infrastructure. Failure by the U.S. to expand the growth of its REE industry could make it economically and militarily vulnerable to supply disruptions from China and other foreign suppliers who are antagonistic to U.S. economic and strategic interests. (1)

What Are Rare Earth Elements?

REE are 15 elements ranging from atomic number 57 (Lanthanum) to 71 (Lutetium) on the periodic table of elements. In addition, atomic number 39 (Yttrium) and atomic number 21 (Scandium) are also regarded as REEs because of similar chemical and physical properties. Light REEs cover from Lanthum to atomic number 64 (Gadolinium) and heavy REEs cover from atomic number 65 (Terbium) to Lutetium. REEs are not defined as rare due to supply shortages, but due to their identification during the 18th and 19th centuries as being materials which could not be changed further by heat unlike lime or magnesia. Atomic number 58 (Cerium) is the most abundant REE and is more common in the Earth's crust than copper or lead and all REEs, except Atomic number 61 (Promethium) are most abundant on average in the earth's crust than silver, gold, or platinum.

Concentrated and economically minable deposits of REEs are unusual. (2)

U.S. and International Civilian Uses of REEs

REEs are significantly integrated into a multiplicity of civilian applications in the U.S. and internationally. They make phosphors (substances emitting luminescence) for ray tubes and flat screen displays ranging in size from smart phone displays to stadium scoreboards with some REEs used in fluorescent and LED lighting. The glass industry is the largest single consumer of REE raw materials using them for glass polishing and additives providing color and special optical properties. Lanthanum consists of nearly 50% of digital camera lenses including cell phone cameras. Catalysts of this element are also used to refine petroleum and cerium-based catalysts are used in automobile catalytic converters. (3)

Magnets deploying REEs are receiving frequent use with neodymium-iron-boron magnets being the strongest known magnets and are very useful when space and weight are limiting factors. REE magnets are used in computer hard disks and CD-ROM and DVD disk drives. Disk drive spindles attain high stability in their spinning motion when driven by a REE magnet. Such magnets are also used in multiple conventional auto subsystems including power steering, electric windows, power seats, and audio speakers. Nickel-metal hydrides are built with lanthanum-based alloys as anodes and can be used as batteries in hybrid electric cars requiring 10-15 kilograms per vehicle. Other REEs, including cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium, commonly used as a mixed oxide called mischmetal, are used in steel making to remove impurities and in producing special alloys. (4)

Global Dispersion of REEs

Global REE resources are distributed throughout the world with only a small percentage being available in the U.S. A 2008 National Research Council report stressed that REEs rank high on the "criticality" factor of raw materials emphasizing they possess high technological and economic importance along with high supply side risk. This assessment went on to maintain that critical material availability can and will change as production technologies evolve and new products are developed, that the U.S. Government defines a critical mineral as one with essential uses and subject to supply restriction risk, the longer it takes to substitute a mineral increases cost and expense and increases the impact of mineral supply disruption, significant short and medium-term mineral supply disruptions may occur due to significant demand increase, thin markets, product concentration, production predominantly as a byproduct, and lack of available old-scrap for recycling or the infrastructure required for recycling, long-term mineral and mineral product availability requires continued minerals education spending, and that import dependence alone is not a useful risk indicator but imports can be vulnerable to disruption if supply is concentrated in one or more REE exporting countries with high political risk or where significantly increasing internal demand may cause indigenous REE production to be directed to internal consumption. (5)

The following section will describe the REE resources, industries, and governmental policymaking of selected countries besides the U.S. which begins with charts showing global REE distribution.

Afghanistan--The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that Afghanistan's Helmand Province contains REEs and uranium with these concentrated in the Khan Neshin carbonite complex uncovered by Soviet investigators in the 1970s and confirmed by subsequent Afghan and USGS geological investigations. Their estimate of undiscovered REE deposits include a mean expected value of 1.4 million metric tons of REE and 3.48 million metric tons of niobium which, while not a REE, is considered a critical strategic material due to its use in various superconducting purposes including electronics, nuclear industries, and optics. Afghanistan has been unable to achieve significant development of its REE industry due to violent conditions and lack of infrastructure including electricity, mining and mineral processing facilities, and roads. However, these factors have not unduly restricted China's interests in Afghan REE reserves and efforts to gain influence in accessing them. (6)

Helmand Province has seen repeated fighting between the U.S., international coalition allies, and the Afghanistan Government against the Taliban. Operation Moshtarak lasting over several months in 2010 resulted in an eventual military victory for the U.S. and its allies. The June 2017 edition of the Defense Department's report Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan documented ongoing military operations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces including the Taliban claiming responsibility for fatal January 10, 2017 attacks in these provinces, ongoing Taliban efforts to contest and seize population and communication centers in these regions persist, and three U.S. military personnel were wounded during a March 20, 2017 insider attack at a Helmand Province military base. (7)

Australia--Mineral resources have played and continuing playing critically important roles in Australian economic prosperity and strategic interests. (8) During 2015, Australian mineral exports (except petroleum products) were AUS $141 billion representing 56% of export merchandise, 45% of exported goods and services, and nearly 9% of Gross Domestic Product. 2015 Australian REE resources are estimated to be 3.44 million metric tons (MT) up from 3.19 million MT in 2013. This represents approximately 2.6% of the world's estimated total of 130 MT. Growth in Australian REE stem from resource upgrades at Yangibana (Hastings Technology Metals Ltd) and Browns Range (Northern Minerals Ltd) in Western Australia and Nolans Bore (Arafura Resources Ltd) in the Northern Territory. Lynas Corporation Ltd operates Australia's only rare earths mine at Mount Weld, Western Australia which supplies Rare Earth concentrates to the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) in Malaysia. Mount Weld produces on a LAMP demand basis and in 2015 produced 10,900 tons of ready-for-sale RE oxides making Australia second only to China which generates 85% of this production. (9)

In 2011, Australia and the U.S. signed a Reciprocal Security of Supply Agreement to ensure that each country provided the other a reciprocal priority and supply of defense products, materials, and services to discharge their military commitments according to their foreign and security policy requirements. (10)

Canada--Canada's geographic and geological expanses also feature potentially substantive REE reserves and Canada has a demonstrated a successful historical and contemporary record of mineral resources extraction. It has been estimated that there are over 200 individual REE demonstration projects at various stages of development in Canada with the following chart demonstrating potential future REE mines:

Canadian Government officials have identified 11 REE projects in advanced exploration stage which are all Canadian owned. The capital expenditure requirements of developing a Canadian rare earth mine are estimated to range from SCAN 106 million-$2.5 billion which are much higher than mining traditional metals like copper. The House of Commons Natural Resources Committee learned that developing a Canadian REE mine could take between 7-10 years involving multiple development stages including prefeasibility studies and environmental assessment with the following chart reflect the multifaceted permitting process. (11)

The Canadian Government has pledged to promote research on environmentally cleaner and more efficient REE and chromite extraction. Ottawa maintains that REEs are key components facilitating a transition to clean technologies behind a transition to a low carbon economy. Such programs are believed to deliver process...

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