With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting supply-chain fallout, many have speculated about how the U.S. found itself so reliant on manufacturing in China and other countries.
The global pandemic has cruelly exposed the dependence of the U.S. on China’s mass-manufacturing capability, especially for supplies of critical medical equipment and materials. Not only are personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical ventilators in massive short supply, Chinese-supplied medical tests have been found to be inaccurate when used in various countries. This acute shortage and dependence has raised questions about the need for new supply-chain strategies for obtaining materials and finished product.
Why are we so dependent on these countries, and what can we do about it? Much of the answer has to do with decisions made decades ago, in accordance with geopolitics and economics of the time. But not only have times and technology changed, our national imperatives are forever transformed as a result of the coronavirus experience. One of those imperatives is access to special compounds called rare earth elements (REE). Efforts to mine and process them in the U.S. have long been dormant, with the country choosing instead to rely on Chinese sources of supply.
Rare earth elements are a collection of 17 elements located in the third group of the periodic table. They’re used to produce the next generation of hybrid car batteries, computer touch screens, and specialized magnets found in defense systems — basically, the core of many high-tech products.
From the mid-1960s to mid-80s, the U.S. was among the principal suppliers of REE. However, safety and regulatory concerns led to a drastic reduction of rare earth mining. The unintended consequence of those restrictions was the virtual cessation of mining of REE-bearing materials in the U.S. Molycorp, a key producer in the 1980s, and other companies shipped their oxides to China for refining and value-added production into metals, alloys, and magnets. Since then, China has maintained dominance in this sector.
It’s time to rethink our national strategy. If any part of manufacturing is to move back to the U.S., rare earth elements will be needed as part of the production process. This is not a problem that individual companies can solve on their own. The U.S. either needs to produce these materials domestically, or American trade negotiators will have to convince China to be receptive to working a deal for guaranteed access to REE. It’s highly unlikely that the Chinese will be inclined to support our ability to move production away from China. With these considerations as a backdrop, here are a few recommendations for solving the rare earth problem.
REEs could be produced in the U.S. as byproduct material from other mining activities, such as phosphates and iron ore. The U.S. Geological Survey has conducted extensive chemical analysis of 23 sedimentary phosphate deposits within the country, revealing significantly enriched REEs in those ores. Cooperatives focused around REEs as a national security and economic policy should be set up to utilize, for example, the byproduct feedstock of the fertilizer industry. This concept should also be explored for other types of mining as well, such as iron ores.
As an extension to the cooperative, electronic buy-sell exchanges should be set up for commercial transactions among members and non-members. They should be modeled on existing concepts such as the health information exchanges. One benefit of the initiative will be the creation of capabilities for tracking supply and demand, enabling the balancing of national needs and material allocation in times of crisis.
A national initiative under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Science Foundation, or similar government body should be chartered with the mission of exploring possible material and technology substitutions for REEs. The U.S. should establish itself as a world leader in the next generation of REE substitutes, and reap the benefits of its findings.
As with the national petroleum stockpile, the U.S. should develop a national REE stockpile program. It would need to be established as a matter of national security and economic policy priority.
Each day, Americans turn on their TVs with hopes of news that pharmaceutical innovations will bring us better COVID-19 testing or virus-defeating vaccines that will end the quarantines and social isolation. But who knows what our next crisis will look like, and what those circumstances will bring? If life has taught us anything, it’s the importance of self-reliance. The U.S. must be able to produce the technology it needs within its own borders. This doesn’t mean complete isolationism, but it does require a close look at our most critical dependencies. Rare earth elements are the key to that independence, and have earned their place in our national agenda.