Lou Kilzer, Pittsburg Tribune-Review
A Pentagon report that says domestic sources will allow the U.S. military to meet most of its demand for rare earth elements by next year was blasted on Monday by several experts.
After more than a year in preparation, the seven-page report predicts an end to China’s stranglehold on the elements needed for high-tech U.S. weaponry from smart bombs to lasers.
That view is “rather naïve” and ill-informed, said Ed Richardson, president of the U.S. Magnetic Materials Association and an expert in rare earth elements.
For instance, he said that even if U.S. miners are able to find enough of rare earths dysprosium and neodymium to produce military-grade magnets, the nation has lost the manufacturing capacity to refine the raw materials.
“There are no producers left in the States,” Richardson said, echoing the findings of a Tribune-Review investigation published in January 2011.
Richardson and other experts who spoke to the Trib said China and Japan control refining. That will not likely change for years, he said.
“If we want the magnets, I guess we will have to go to China,” Richardson said. “And we’ll have to ask them very, very nicely.”
“The only way we can get that material right now is from a foreign company in China,” agreed Jack Lifton, co-founder of Technology Metals Research, an Illinois company that follows the rare earth industry.
He said the report was “so lame I can’t believe it.”
Brett Lambert, the Pentagon official responsible for industrial policy, declined to comment on the report. He told a Trib reporter to call Defense Department public relations and then hung up the phone.
The Trib has covered the rare earth issue closely for more than a year, pointing out repeatedly that simply finding rare earths is only the first and easiest step in regaining the manufacturing dominance the United States once held. The other steps — refining rare earths into metals, alloys and end products such as magnets — haven’t been done in the United States since the early 2000s. The number of rare-earth scientists and engineers has declined precipitously.
Of special concern are heavy rare earths such as dysprosium, which are nearly controlled by China and will be for years, experts say. Although several mining companies outside of China have been locating new supplies of rare earths, almost all are confined to the light rare earths, industry consultant Jeff Green said.
The Pentagon report predicted that U.S. production of dysprosium will reach seven tons next year, equal to what the Department of Defense needs. Though that would leave no extra dysprosium for domestic needs, the Pentagon shows no deficit.
Even if the United States were able to produce seven tons of dysprosium next year — which Green and others say is almost impossible — it “couldn’t do anything with it,” Green maintained.
There are 17 rare earth elements on the periodic table. Commercially, they are used in hybrid cars, flat-screen monitors, wind turbines and hydrocarbon cracking, among other uses.
China, which has produced 97 percent of the world’s rare earths in recent years, began tightening the market with export and other controls in 2010. That sent prices skyrocketing and miners scurrying to find non-Chinese supplies.
Discoveries of raw rare earth supplies outside of China have depressed prices as much as 50 percent since last summer. But the experts lament that any new supply of rare earths will not diminish the technological lead established by the Chinese.
Molycorp, a U.S. company close to full production of raw rare earths at a California mine, made a $1.3 billion deal last month to buy a firm that refines rare earth products in China. Shipping rare earths to China shaves five to seven years off developing technology here, the company said.