Critical Minerals and Emerging Technologies

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					                                                                      RODERICK G. EGGERT

Critical Minerals and
Emerging Technologies
                                               The federal government can help ensure
                                               that the nation has sufficient and reliable supplies
                                               of critical materials used increasingly in
                                               industry and defense.

                      he periodic table is under siege. Or at least   constrain expansion. Even the U.S. Government Account-
                      that is what one might imagine after hear-      ability Office weighed in, publishing the findings of its in-
                      ing some of the cries of alarm that have        vestigation on the availability of rare-earth elements for es-
                      begun echoing across the United States.         sential military applications and vulnerability to shortages.
                      We hear that the latest cell phones, elec-         One factor giving rise to concerns is that modern mineral-
                      tric vehicles, or critical weapons systems      based materials are becoming increasingly complex. Intel
                      might no longer be feasible because some        estimates that computer chips contained 11 mineral-derived
element that most people have never heard of is in short              elements in the 1980s, 15 elements in the 1990s, and poten-
supply or being hoarded by another country.                           tially up to 60 elements in the coming years. General Elec-
   Among the alarms issued in just the first few months of            tric estimates that it uses 70 of the first 83 elements in the pe-
2010, The New Yorker published an essay on lithium sup-               riodic table in its products. New technologies and engi-
plies (which may be essential for batteries in electric vehi-         neered materials create the prospect of rapid increases in
cles) and the potentially critical role of Bolivia as a supplier      demand for some minerals previously used in relatively
in the future. The Atlantic published an article on China’s           small quantities. On the list are such elements as lithium in
activities in Africa to secure—even “lock up”—primary com-            automotive batteries for electric vehicles; rare-earth ele-
modities needed by its growing manufacturing sector. Sci-             ments in compact-fluorescent light bulbs and in permanent
ence published a special section in one issue describing new          magnets for wind turbines; and cadmium, indium, and tel-
materials for electronics, and the report included commen-            lurium in photovoltaic solar cells.
tary on possible scarcities of essential elements that could             On the supply side, meanwhile, some mineral markets

                                                                                                                    SUMMER 2010      49
The U.S. government should fight policies of
exporting nations that restrict raw-material
exports to the detriment of U.S. users of these
raw materials.

are becoming increasingly fragile. The United States has be-     they are motivated, in part, by high commodity prices. It is
come significantly more reliant on foreign sources for many      no coincidence that past periods of concern coincided with
minerals. Some exporting nations, most notably China, have       periods of booming commodity prices. Such periods have
imposed export restrictions on primary raw materials to          included the early 1950s during postwar reconstruction and
encourage dome
Description: Since just before World War II, the DoD has relied largely on the National Defense Stockpile to deal with threats to the supply of materials essential for national defense. In its recommendations, the report said that the Department of Defense should establish a new system for managing the supply of strategic materials, and the federal government should enhance its systems for gathering data and information on materials necessary for national defense. Since the NRC report was published, the DoD has begun to respond to and act on these recommendations.
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