2nd Annual U.S. ENDANGERED ELEMENTS LIST™ (EEL12)
A 2012 List of the Top 5 Most Threatened Metals on the Periodic Table that Endanger the Long Term Prospects for America
Alisha A. Ahern, Co-Director
Academics & Periodicals Department, American Elements
2012 marks the second year American Elements has published an annual list of elements which by their scarcity and technological importance threaten America’s long term prospects. America is about to face a crisis that will determine whether it will hold its place as the largest economy and most powerful nation in the world. While the U.S. has been focused for the past 10 years on issues in its financial sector and a war on terrorism, a greater danger has been brewing that most Americans seem completely unaware of. America no longer has the resources to manufacture the things we invent.
ABOUT AMERICAN ELEMENTS’ ANNUAL ENDANGERED ELEMENTS LIST (EEL)
Today it is a constant refrain that the way out of our present fiscal difficulties is for America to get back in the business of making things. Manufacturing generates the needed jobs and resulting prosperity that have pulled us out of each recession for the last 150 years. American innovation, particularly in the area of green technology, it is said will foster whole new industries, jobs and economic growth at the beginning of the 21st Century similar to the impact made at the beginning of the 20th Century by the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell (telephones), Thomas Edison (electricity) and Henry Ford (cars).
While much of this is true, innovation is in fact only the starting point. To manufacture the products flowing from great ideas, a nation must also have access to the critical materials on which the discoveries are based. Each of the metals on the periodic table has its own somewhat alchemistic properties. These properties underlie every great invention. Bell and Edison were successful because they could rely on the copper mines of the southwest for the massive amount of electrically conductive copper needed to build the telephone lines and power lines their inventions required. Ford could reach to the iron and coal mines of the Appalachians for the key components of the steel to build his cars and Texas for the oil and gas necessary to fuel and lubricate them.
The coming innovations of the 21st Century will also require massive amounts of various metals. However, the metals of the 21st Century are very different from the ones that mattered in the 20th Century. Copper, iron, nickel and tin have given way to somewhat exotic sounding metals a lot further down the Periodic Table; metals that all Americans need to quickly get familiar with because at present we mine almost NONE of them. Additionally, we have made virtually no effort to deal with this strategic gap in our ability to manufacture the things we invent; either domestically or in our foreign policy towards mineral-rich nations.
The primary purpose of American Elements’ annual Endangered Elements List (EEL) is to bring attention to this crisis and to educate Americans as to (1) which metals are critical, (2) what makes them essential and endangered and (3) what other nations, particularly China, are doing to assure they can produce what they (or we) invent.
THE 2012 ENDANGERED ELEMENTS LIST
Niobium is an essential ingredient in structural steel. It increases steel’s strength and toughness. It is also used extensively in the super alloys from which jet engines are produced making it critical to the U.S. military and aerospace industries. Yet at present a single nation produces virtually all of the world’s niobium. That nation is Brazil which last year produced 58,000 of the 63,000 total tons produced worldwide. Should Brazil suddenly discontinue niobium exports due to worker strikes, for political reasons or other events, it would have an immediate dramatic impact on global steel production. At present the U.S. produces no niobium importing 100% of its annual consumption in spite of the fact that one of the world’s largest proven niobium deposits is located in Nebraska (Elk Creek Mine owned by Quantum Rare Earth Development Corp.)
All standard car batteries, commonly referred to as lead-acid batteries, contain antimony to improve their charging ability. And this accounts for less than 20% of antimony’s uses. In the form of antimony oxide, it is an essential ingredient in flame retardants required for fire protection. For the U.S. auto industry to compete with other newly emerging national auto industries, such as China’s, America will require a ready access to antimony. Yet America produces no antimony and 90% of the world’s antimony production comes only from China.
Most only know strontium due to Strontium 90, an isotope of the element that is produced in nuclear fission reactions and is therefore a major component in the nuclear fallout from an atomic bomb blast. However, few know that strontium in the form of strontium nitrate is the propellant that causes air bags in cars to open. It is also heavily used in ceramic and glass production. Yet again the U.S. is 100% reliant on foreign producers, with 2 countries- China and Spain- controlling most of its production.
If you look at a periodic table you might note that all the metals found in a jewelry store are touching each other in a little island in the center. Gold, silver, platinum and palladium form a class of metals we commonly call the “precious metals” because unlike most other metals they always remain shiny and lustrous. However, they also share other even more significant properties for industry and science. They constitute the catalysts which run much of our modern industrial world. Look hard enough in the catalytic converter on your family car and you will find platinum, gold and/or palladium. We can make neither food nor energy without these precious metal catalysts. And these metals have far greater pressure on their availability and cost than other metals which derive their value based solely on their industrial importance. Precious metals have the additional demand pressure that comes from their inherent monetary value. Emerging nations such as India are consuming record volumes of gold simply for investment or decorative purposes. Yet, for example, the U.S. produces almost none of its platinum consumption. Nearly all of the world’s platinum production is coming from one country—South Africa—and much of the balance from Russia. The two countries combined account for 86% of world production. The heavy future demand for precious metals, particularly platinum, as catalysts in industry and as safe havens of choice for emerging wealth will put significant pressure on their availability in the future.
The number of state of the art technologies that require yttrium are too many to list here. The toughest hardest commercial ceramic material known to man is made with yttrium (YSZ). YSZ can be found in hundreds of important applications from gas turbine blades to dental crowns. Like many advanced elements, when combined with other elements yttrium has numerous wholly unrelated magical properties that form the basis for future billion dollar industries. It is ionically conductive as YSZ which makes it the electrolyte in fuel cells. It is superconducting as yttrium-barium-copper oxide. Combined with aluminum or iron it forms a garnet that is the crystal in most commercial and medical lasers. Yttrium is in all automobile spark plugs. Access to yttrium will determine which nations will compete in manufacturing many of the innovations of the 21st Century. Yttrium is the last of a group of 17 metals at the very bottom of the periodic table known collectively as the lanthanide series or "rare earths". Each of the rare earth metals has its own unique set of properties that are critical to some future trillion dollar industry. #1 and #2 on last year’s EEL were also rare earths (lanthanum and neodymium). Today China mines 97% of all global rare earth production. America presently produces from only one rare earth mine, the recently re-opened Molycorp mine in Mountain Pass, California which was closed in the 1990s. Other U.S. rare earth mines, such as the Ucore mine at Bokan Mountain, Alaska are years from approval unless the federal government and environmentalists can find a way to expedite the approval process.
Alisha A. Ahern is the co-director of the Academics & Periodicals Department at American Elements which promotes an understanding of advanced materials and materials science. The department sponsors over 100 technology conferences globally each year, supports materials science education at the high school, college and graduate school levels and in 2011 co-sponsored a 4 part PBS NOVA series titled "Making Stuff" on the impact materials will have on future technology.