3rd Annual U.S. ENDANGERED ELEMENTS LIST™ (EEL13)
A 2013 List of the Top 5 Most Threatened Metals on the Periodic Table that Endanger the Long Term Prospects for America
Haley Ryan, Co-Director
Academics & Periodicals Department, American Elements
2013 marks the third 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 U.S. government and industry leaders have trumpeted the anticipated resources of American manufacturing, a barrier to the realization of this dream 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. It is said that American innovation, particularly in the area of green technology 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 that 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 more exotic-sounding metals 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 2013 ENDANGERED ELEMENTS LIST
Jets, cars and all other means of transportation will rely more and more on lightweight alloys. Next generation ultra-light structural materials are every bit as important to our green future as next generation alternative energy forms. Magnesium is the lightest structural metal and therefore an essential ingredient in high-tech light structural alloys. It is already the third most common structural metal after iron and aluminum. The anticipated growth in demand for magnesium in ultra-light alloys will put pressure on current production which is controlled almost exclusively by China—83% of world production.
Indium is a shiny metal that is so soft it can be etched with your fingernail. When compounded to form indium tin oxide (ITO), it is essential to the production of flat panel devises such as televisions and computer screens. When synthesized as copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), it is fundamental to state-of-the-art solar energy panels. In its pure form, it is also integral to modern electronics. Despite its many critical applications, America currently mines NO indium. More than half of world production is concentrated in China. Possibly most worrying are estimates by some authorities that the entire world may run out of indium within the next 20 years.
Neodymium has two wholly unrelated characteristics, either of which would put it on this year’s list. First, when alloyed with iron and boron, it forms the world’s strongest magnet; as a result, today’s electric motors are significantly more powerful. Gas-driven cars are loaded with these electric motors, and the latest electric cars require even more neodymium. This same trait also makes it an essential material for wind power, wind energy generators being essentially electric motors in reverse. The second game-changing attribute of neodymium is exhibited when it is used in glass or crystal. Neodymium glass has an almost magical ability to absorb and emit certain colors of the visible spectrum. This light absorbing/emitting capability has led to many new technologies; for example, laser eye surgery is done using a neodymium crystal laser. As one of the “rare earth” elements, China presently has a near complete monopoly on neodymium production. The cost of the metal has soared from $10/lb. just six years ago to over $400/lb. today.
All Americans are familiar with the new lithium batteries which have revolutionized the fabrication of small electronics; lithium made the EEL in 2011. However, a new next generation battery is just around the technological corner that is built from Vanadium. “Vanadium-flow batteries” are important because they store electrical energy instantaneously. This gives them two critical uses. First, energy created by either solar or wind generators has to go somewhere as it’s being produced; second, one of the great advantages of gas-driven cars is that they load energy instantly (assuming there’s no line at the pump), and vanadium-based batteries have the potential to bring this essential capability to electric cars and the alternative energy revolution. In addition, the auto industry has relied on vanadium to double the strength of steel since Henry Ford used it in the Model T. Some are already saying demand is about to exceed supply. Yet America has only one producing mine—the Gibellini mine outside of Las Vegas owned by American Vanadium Corporation. Currently, mining is concentrated in Russia, China and South Africa.
The world has come to realize the importance of neodymium permanent magnets, one reason that the rare earth neodymium made the EEL again this year. However, most do not realize that neodymium has a much more elusive rare earth junior partner in the production of permanent magnets: the element dysprosium. With a relatively small addition of dysprosium, neodymium magnets can withstand the temperatures necessary to operate in electric cars and wind generators—the two key next generation applications for magnets. Yet dysprosium is exceedingly short in supply, being much rarer than neodymium. Rare Earth mines are already few and far between, and most rare earth mines contain virtually no dysprosium. To date, the world’s response has been to attempt to innovate around the problem by developing magnetic technologies that do not require dysprosium. In the U.S. even the one operating rare earth mine, Molycorp, contains virtually no Dy in its deposit. The one dysprosium-rich deposit in the U.S., Bokan Mountain, Alaska owned by Ucore, is possibly years from production. Currently, essentially 100% of dysprosium is produced in China, which has ionic clays rich in heavy rare earths in its southern regions. Should dysprosium continue to be essential to future electric car production, China may have a serious leg up on the rest of the world as to which nation will dominate global automobile production in the 21st century.
Haley Ryan 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 four-part PBS NOVA series entitled "Making Stuff" on the impact materials will have on future technology.