Troubling ‘Chinopoly’

October 12, 2010 (Source: Fredericksburg) — THE LANTHANIDE rare earths–metals No. 57 through 71 on your handy-dandy periodic table of elements–are, for the most part, not all that rare: Lanthanum (No. 57) is three times more common in nature than lead, and cerium (No. 58) is the 25th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. But if you live anywhere besides China, the rare earths are getting rarer–a fact that makes Americans less secure.

The rare earths are irreplaceable components of jet engines and missiles–to name just two military applications–and also figure critically in lasers, cell phones, medical imagery, and a host of other modern technologies. Yet China, enjoying the payoff of a 20-year campaign to corner the rare-earth market, now controls 97 percent of the industry, and last summer announced that it was slashing exports by 40 percent. Prices of some of the rare earths have jumped 200 percent since Beijing’s enactment of the export cap.

Where does this leave U.S. national defense? The Pentagon is unable to even accurately inventory how many of its weapons systems use how much rare-earth material because it buys many weapons components pre-assembled from foreign sources. (A supply sergeant who couldn’t tell his C.O. how many gas masks were in the armory would be in trouble, but let it pass.) What’s very well-known is that U.S. rare-earth mining is nonexistent, thanks mostly to its being undercut by artificially low Chinese exports, and that the Defense Department sold off its stocks. America, it seems, not only gets the bulk of its consumer geegaws from the People’s Republic, but now we’re heading toward war-fighting dependency, too.

ACCEPTABLE DANGERS

The Government Accountability Office, reports The Washington Post, estimates that it could take as long as 15 years to rebuild the domestic rare-earth industry, which might involve re-opening California’s Mountain Pass mine. Once the world’s biggest mine, it was caught between the Scylla of China’s rare-earth dumping and the Charybdis of domestic environmental concerns and ceased operations in 2002.

Rare-earth mining indeed can be dangerous: The lanthanide rare earths usually come bundled all together in ore, and two of them–europium and promethium–can emit dangerous gamma rays. Moreover, the lanthanides often keep company with the two naturally occurring actinide rare earths, thorium and uranium, both famously radioactive.

Of course, mining the rare earths is dangerous for the Chinese, too. But would it take them until 2025 to start digging the metals out of the ground if their national security was at stake?

In a tiff with Japan over a detained Chinese fishing captain, China, mineral traders recently reported, cut off exports to Japan of all merchandise containing even traces of the rare earths–a signal that Beijing is ready to use its near-monopoly over the elements as foreign-policy muscle. Meanwhile, legislation in the U.S. House seeks to revive domestic rare-earth production.

Let’s hope so. Walking point for the rare earths, lanthanum derives from a Greek word meaning “I am hidden.” Actually, we know exactly where lanthanum and its tribe are located in usable form. The only thing mysterious is how America’s defenders allowed it to happen.

POSTSCRIPT

Most of the rare earths are so akin that scientists once argued about whether they were actually separate elements. But they are–and they have different applications. Here are some facts about a few of the group, most of them taken from “The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe” by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann.

The nickname of cerium (No. 58) could be “Sparky.” When scraped, it emits showers of bright sparks especially useful in movie special effects.

A bluish alloy of praseodymium (No. 59) absorbs yellow light; goggles coated with it allow glass workers to use their torches without going blind.

How magnetic is neodymium (No. 60)? Neodymium magnets “can jump toward each other from a foot or more away. Heaven help you if you’re holding one when that happens.”

Promethium (No. 61), named for the Titan who gave mankind fire, powers nuclear batteries.

In medicine, the magnetism of gadolinium (No. 64) makes it ideal as a contrasting agent for MRI scans.

Erbium (No. 68) allows the amplification of a pulse of light in a fiber-optic cable system, making it critical to modern communications systems.