A former high ranking United States Army executive charged with acquiring and developing world-class equipment for U.S. soldiers under the Obama and Bush administrations warns that the lack of a domestic source for rare earth elements, or REEs, will be the Achilles heel of American military superiority.
“Every one of the current and next round of super and unimaginable US weapons relies on REEs, an exotic assortment of 17 metals and elements, that are neither mined nor processed into ores in the US,” Dean Popps, former assistant secretary for acquisition logistics and technology, penned in an Oct. 10 column.
Rare earth elements possess unique characteristics that make them important ingredients to many high-technology devises used by both civilians and the military.
While their high-tech applications makes them vital to United States security, the fact that more than 90 percent of these metals come from China elevates their status to critical.
“We remain completely at the mercy of foreign governments and markets for these vital supplies, which are the building blocks for every major piece of military equipment or weapons system,” Popps wrote.
“To believe China would keep supplying us with the materials needed to defeat them is both irresponsible and naďve,” the former Army executive added.
The United States, however, does have several options for domestic sources of rare earths, including Ucore Rare Metals’ Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska and the REE separation technology that company is developing.
"Former Secretary Popps' insight and expertise in supply chain security has highlighted the growing threat of relying on foreign nations such as China for the American military's most essential and critical materials," said Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie. “Ucore's establishment of domestic REE separation capabilities fits hand in glove with the urgent need for an American military supply chain free of compromise."
China’s REE dominanceChina’s dominance of global rare earths supply means the Middle Kingdom dictates the going price of these technology minerals.
The Middle Kingdom gained this commanding position by flooding the market with rare earths in the 1980s. By offering these elements at a fraction of the going rate, REE producers outside of China, including the Mountain Pass Mine in California, were uneconomical and forced to close.
Over the ensuing two decades, China has reigned as the global low-cost supplier of rare earths. During this same period, these elements have become increasingly important ingredients in a wide range of modern products such as terabyte hard-drives that fit in the palm of your hand, high-efficiency power generation and guided missiles.
“Their unique properties, such as strong magnetic qualities at high temperatures, help precision-guided munitions pinpoint targets, facilitate GPS navigation, and allow fighter pilots to eject safely. Given REE’s undeniable military and commercial value, it is difficult to overstate their importance to our national security,” said Popps.
In 2010, China cut exports of this suite of 16 elements critical to green energy, high-technology and defense by upwards of 40 percent. This sparked a price explosion that was fueled further by an over-exuberant market worried about a global shortage.
“China has already set a precedent for using REEs as geopolitical leverage. Following a dispute with Japan in 2010, the country curtailed its REE exports, spiking prices as much as 600 percent,” Popps wrote.
For example, europium oxide rose from US$475 per kilogram in 2008 to a peak of US$3,800/kg in 2011.
Most of the critical rare earth oxides – including dysprosium, terbium and neodymium – followed a similar upward price trajectory.
The skyrocketing REE prices at the time spurred a frenzy of exploration aimed at identifying non-Chinese supplies of these technology minerals.
This work helped to advance a number of promising REE projects, including Bokan Mountain, and resulted in the re-opening of Mountain Pass.
By 2013, however, China opened up its rare earths exports, sending prices plummeting as quickly as they rose.
Today, europium oxide can be bought on the Internet from Chinese suppliers for US$250/kg.
These wild swings in prices have made it difficult to determine the feasibility of opening a new mine and by 2015 Molycorp, the company that resumed operations at Mountain Pass, had filed for bankruptcy.
“The last American rare earth mine closed in 2015, leaving the U.S. government without a single domestic supplier of the rare earths and specialty metals it requires,” Popps penned.
Unconventional US sourcesUcore Rare Metals has advanced both conventional and unconventional rare earth sources in the U.S.
The company’s more orthodox domestic REE source is at Bokan Mountain on Prince of Wales Island.
A preliminary economic assessment envisioned a 1,500-metric-ton-per-day mining operation at Bokan that would churn out 2,250 metric tons of rare earth oxides annually during the first five years of full production. This yearly supply included some of the more critical REEs such as 95 metric tons of dysprosium oxide, 14 metric tons of terbium oxide and 515 metric tons of yttrium oxide.
While Bokan Mountain has stalled in the pre-permitting stage, the research to develop a more economical and environmentally sound processing facility to separate and recover the rare earths found there is evolving into a more unorthodox REE source.
By 2014, Ucore’s quest for a cutting edge REE separation technology had led the exploration turned innovation company to IBC Advanced Technologies and its proprietary molecular recognition technology.
The basic idea behind the MRT process is that “SuperLig resins” are engineered to grab ions based on a number of traits such as size, chemistry and geometry. These resins are loaded into a column and latch onto the targeted material suspended in a solution that is pumped through the column. Simply rinsing the resin with a mildly acidic solution releases a nearly pure version of the material the resin is engineered to bind to.
Using a REE-laden solution sourced from Bokan Mountain, IBC and Ucore have successfully applied molecular recognition technology to the separation of the tightly interlocked rare earth elements with a pilot plant known as SuperLig-One.
"We've demonstrated the capability to separate the 16 individual REE, at greater than 99 percent purity and 99 percent recovery, from PLS (pregnant leach solution) derived from Bokan-Dotson Ridge REE ore," said IBC President and CEO Steven Izatt. "Dysprosium, for example, has been separated from Bokan PLS in a pilot plant operation at the 99.99 percent level with 99 percent recovery.”
This means that essentially all of dysprosium fed into SuperLig One comes out the other end as a virtually pure product.
This highly efficient process has further evolved into the Strategic Metals Complex, a facility being developed to extract rare earths from sources not typically thought about for their REE potential.
Coal mine tailings are one of numerous unconventional rare earth sources being considered.
"In order for the United States to become self-sufficient in the supply of REE it is essential that critical ones of these, such as neodymium, dysprosium, europium, terbium, and yttrium, be produced in large quantities by green engineering-green chemistry procedures that will meet current environmental standards, avoid the use of organic solvents, and generate minimal waste," said Izatt. "IBC's SuperLig MRT is a commercial technology that meets these standards.”
Federal REE fundsPopps, who joined Ucore’s advisory board this year, says it is critical that the federal government appropriate some funding for the research and development of domestic sources of rare earths.
“Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee authorization bills included additional funds for development of domestic rare earth capability, though the all-powerful Appropriations Committees have not matched this investment to date,” he wrote. “We need to put some money toward fixing this critical supply chain issue before we get caught short and embarrassed when it’s a matter of life and death in defense of the nation.”
In July, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to identify and address potential weak points in the defense manufacturing base and supply chain for U.S. weapons systems.
Popps believes that U.S. dependence on China for its rare earths should be part of this conversation.
“The Pentagon is foolish to advertise a grand strategy of technological prowess when it doesn’t even have a secure supply of the strategic materials it needs to innovate,” he wrote. “President Trump’s recently announced Industrial Base Review could be an opportunity to fix this problem by insisting that the Pentagon support domestic supply lines.”
Popps believes that protecting the U.S. military’s Achilles heel is worth the any investment needed to ensure a domestic REE supply.
“Though seemingly unimportant things like a $2 rare earth element magnet steering a billion dollar weapons platform may sound inconsequential, when our adversaries cut off our supply, leveraging our greatest weakness against us, we won’t have anywhere to turn,” penned the former Army executive.