Congress should not require the Pentagon to create a stockpile of rare earth minerals because companies will adjust their behavior to the international marketplace, a group of experts said today.
“The sky is not falling. Contrary to what you are reading in some newspapers and articles we are not going to run out of anything any time soon,” said MIT professor Robert Jaffe. And greatly increasing US production of the 17 rare earth minerals is not the answer either, he said. “Mine baby, mine is not the solution.”
Jaffe was speaking primarily from the perspective of an expert in rare earths, their production and uses. A Heritage Foundation economist on the panel, Derek Scissors, said “there is no need for a stockpile. This falls exactly into the terrain that the government should not get into.”
However, Jaffe and Scissors said some basic research aimed at developing alternatives to the rare earths might be useful if the research was truly basic and did not bleed over into applied research.
The experts appeared to discuss whether Congress should act on rare earths. Last September, the House passed the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010 overwhelmingly, 325 to 98. Their basic conclusion was that the Hill should leave things alone, except for carefully targeted basic research funding to find alternatives to the rare earths.
Scissor agreed that China dominates current production and “can’t be trusted as a supplier. But he said rare earths largely came into use because they were cheap. “They weren’t indispensable 10 years ago. They won’t be in another 10 years.” China, acting as a mercantilist economic power, will continue to raise prices and squeeze supply. And that will drive companies and governments to recycle, find new allows and other ways to avoid using the rare earths that China controls.
“Now they are going to raise the prices and we are going to use less rare earths,” he said.
Following are some of the key defense uses for rare earth minerals, drawn from a paper by James B. Hedrick, titled: Rare Earths in Selected U.S defense Applications:
Precision Guided Munitions use samarium-cobalt permanent magnet motors to control the fins.
Tanks and other vehicles use rare-earth lasers for range finding.
The main US system for detect of underwater mines uses a rare-earth laser system.
Satellites use wave tubes and klystrons that rely on rare earth metals.
Military aircraft use samarium-cobalt magnets to help generate electricity for electrical systems. In addition, small high-powered rare-earth magnet actuators are
The hot sections of aircraft engines rely on super-hard allows that use rare earth elements.
Radars rely on rare-earth magnets (often samarium-cobalt), to focus microwave energy.
High-powered sonar uses Terfenol-D rare-earth alloy.