More Jobs will be Lost if Washington Continues to Hinder Mining in America

Russ Steele

An article by American Elements brought back some memories of when cobalt was declared a strategic mineral in the 1940s, as it was need to build the jet engines that would go on the bombers and fighters critical to  winning the cold war.  When cobalt is added to steel, the metal can become white hot and not lose it’s shape. This is critical in a jet engine with it’s rapidly spinning turbine blades. There were other strategic uses as well.

In 1944 there was only one known deposit in a remote canyon in the Idaho Wilderness, the old Blackbird Mine along Blackbird Creek, 40 miles from the nearest town over switchback mountain roads. The Department of Defense declared cobalt to be a strategic mineral and set in motion a program to secure the needed metal. I covered the story of the Blackbird Mine in my book Cobalt: Legacy of the Blackbird Mine.

Now we know of five strategic minerals and rare earths that are crucial to our high tech way of life and the development of a superior military force. Yet, today Washington is not putting in place programs to insure we have these strategic minerals and rare earth elements, they are crafting more and more regulations to insure that those mineral cannot be mined in the United States.

While all these regulations do not pertain to mining and smelting metals, they represent a troubling trend for industrial growth in America, as is the lack of key minerals.

American Element has compiled the 2011 U.S. Endangered Elements List. This is a list of the Top 5 Most Threatened Metals on the Periodic Table that Endanger the Long Term Prospects for America.

Tungsten has been called the “strongest” metal on the periodic table. It has the highest melting point and greatest tensile strength of any element. Its hardness is greater than most grades of steel. Thomas Edison relied on these properties to create the light bulb. Tungsten is used anywhere that high temperatures and/or hardness and strength are essential. This includes countless aerospace, electronics and defense applications. In spite of tungsten’s critical strategic importance to both industry and our military (from bullets to armor), the United States discontinued ALL tungsten production in the 1990s. Today 85% of global tungsten production occurs within the boundaries of one country-China and China has indicated it may soon discontinue exporting tungsten altogether due to increasing domestic demand.

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. 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 critical to modern electronics. Even given its many critical applications, like tungsten, America currently mines NO indium. More than ½ of world production is again concentrated in China. Possibly most worrying are current estimates that the entire world may run out of indium within the next 20 years.

Tellurium is technically not a metal. It is classified with a group of strange elements called the “Metalloids”.  Today it is primarily used in steel alloys to make them more machinable. However, it is increasingly becoming an essential  layer in solar panels in the form of cadmium telluride. The world’s largest solar panel manufacturer, First Solar, smartly acquired a Mexican tellurium mine this year to assure it has a long term continued supply. But many question whether global demand will outstrip supply. Annual global production is approximately 200 tons, yet demand is projected to reach 800 tons by 2013.

Lanthanum has dozens of applications, but the most critical is as the essential ingredient for electric car metal hydride batteries. Each Toyota Prius™ contains 15 lbs. of lanthanum. Access to lanthanum will determine which nations will build the millions of future electric cars. Lanthanum is the first 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. As a group, their availability will determine which countries will dominate high technology manufacturing in the 21st Century.  #1 on this year’s EEL is also one of the rare earths. Today China mines 97% of all global rare earth production. America presently produces NONE. The only rare earth mine in the U.S., the Molycorp mine in Mountain Pass, California was closed in the 1990s, but is  scheduled to re-open next year. However, Molycorp will not come close to meeting U.S. rare earth demand. 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.

Neodymium Named by our team of experts as “The most essential metal of the 21st Century”, the numerous game changing technologies that rely on neodymium combined with its near complete control by China makes it the #1 U.S. Endangered Element of 2011. 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. Cars are already loaded with these electric motors and future electric cars will require a lot more neodymium. This same characteristic also makes it an essential material for wind power. Wind energy generators are just electric motors in reverse. Electric motors turn electrical energy into mechanical energy (wheels turning). Wind turbines convert mechanical energy (turning of blades by wind) into electrical energy. As such, neodymium is also an essential material for all wind energy technology. And its great magnetic power has many other applications, such as in all IPod™ headphones and in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) medical equipment to name a few. The second game changing characteristic of neodymium is exhibited when it is used in glass or crystal. Neodymium glass has the almost magical ability to absorb and emit certain colors of the visible spectrum.  This light absorbing/emitting capability has lead to many new technologies. Laser eye surgery is performed using a neodymium crystal laser. When light passes through neodymium glass, it absorbs the portion of the light in the yellow wavelength. GE’s Reveal™ Light Bulb produces a whiter light using neodymium. All modern welding goggles and camera lenses use neodymium to remove the eye  damaging yellow wave length. As one of the “rare earth” elements (rare earths are discussed above under lanthanum), China presently has a complete monopoly on neodymium production. The cost of the metal has soared from $10/lb. two years ago to over $400/lb. today. China has indicated it may soon stop exporting neodymium and every new planned rare earth mine outside of China combined will not come close to meeting world demand which is expected to increase dramatically.

In the 1940s and 1950s the Federal Government took action to secure strategic minerals to insure our defense. Now in the 21st Century, the Federal Government is putting in place barriers to the mining of strategic minerals and rare earth elements. One has to ask why this is the case?  Do our political leaders want the US to be dependent on foreign nations? Do they want to cripple our manufacturing capacity? I am hoping it is just environmental stupidity and not a concerted effort to destroy this nations economic vitality. In either case we cannot let this stupidity continue. Elections have consequences!

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About Russ Steele
Freelance writer and climate change blogger. Russ spent twenty years in the Air Force as a navigator specializing in electronics warfare and digital systems. After his service he was employed for sixteen years as concept developer for TRW, an aerospace and automotive company, and then was CEO of a non-profit Internet provider for 18 months. Russ's articles have appeared in Comstock's Business, Capitol Journal, Trailer Life, Monitoring Times, and Idaho Magazine.

2 Responses to More Jobs will be Lost if Washington Continues to Hinder Mining in America

  1. Bob W says:

    Thank you for keeping us posted in these critically important issues Russ. This adds to the skepticism about the true motives and intentions of what is referred to deceptively as environmentalism.

  2. Good that we have some speaking up on this critical issue.

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