by Austin Bay
April 18, 2018
The United States Geological Survey's title for its February 2018 study on "nonfuel minerals" slightly undersells the situation: "China, the United States, and competition for resources that enable emerging technologies."
"Competition"? "Global alley fight" is more accurate. The study's first paragraph is a punch in the face, not a jack slap on the back: "Future resource conflicts may ... focus more on competition for nonfuel minerals that enable emerging technologies."
Emerging technologies may be a bit too sci-fi for cable TV producers. Fortunately, the USGS immediately presents camera-ready objects that can't exist without these minerals, such as commercial and combat aircraft, computers and cellphones: "Whether it is rhenium in jet engines, indium in flat panel displays, or gallium in smart phones, obscure elements (i.e., chemical elements) empower smarter, smaller, and faster technologies, and nations seek stable supplies of these and other nonfuel minerals for their industries. No nation has all of the resources it needs domestically."
No one is self-sufficient. If a nation isn't self-sufficient, it means potential vulnerabilities exist.
The USGS has provided a sobering wake-up call. Assuring access to 42 vital minerals and rare earths that the USGS identifies as critical now ranks high on the list of national security and economic security issues in the 21st century.
That means that at some point, very rich and powerful nations may wage war to obtain these minerals.
It's a mixed metaphor but instructive: Assuring access to these minerals is an economic bread-and-butter issue for every human being with a stake in the world's top 12 economies. The top 12 economies by GDP have a population of about 3.75 billion people, right at half of the world's estimated 7.5 billion people.
The USGS points out that all 42 minerals on its list are vital to some emerging piece or type of technology that enhances the performance or efficiency of other products.
Iron had its day in the Iron Age, but today we live in an age of mineral eclecticism. The USGS says, "Today's emerging technologies encompass almost the entire periodic table and are constantly evolving." As the second decade of the 21st century approaches, chemical elements and minerals that once saw little use "are now required in unprecedented quantities for everyday artifacts."
The American public likes solar power. If the sun can run your hair dryer, great. However, photovoltaic technologies need tellurium. You think electric vehicles are the future? Then you must love cobalt and lithium; rechargeable batteries need both, in quantities.
Wind power generation requires dysprosium. Dysprosium? Sound too chemistry-major? Here's the skinny: symbol "Dy," atomic number 66. Almost all of it is found in clay ores in southern China or in deposits in western Australia. Based on what I could find, about 100 tons of dysprosium are produced a year, and 98 of those tons are produced in China. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy concluded dysprosium was the "most critical element for emerging clean energy technologies."
Do you like your clean energy depending on the whims of the Communist Party in Beijing? That's the mob that approved the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of 2,000 pro-democracy demonstrators.
In December 2017 President Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring the U.S. to reduce imports deemed "vital to national security."
The USGS has identified several minerals that both China and the U.S. must acquire from foreign sources. For example, Chile has significant rhenium and lithium deposits, and Brazil has most of the world's niobium (85 percent of world's niobium production comes from one Brazilian mine).
The utterly fragile Congo and vulnerable Rwanda have tantalum deposits (another mineral used in digital communications equipment). Southern Africa has chromium, manganese, platinum, palladium, rhodium and zirconium.
Does this mean China and the U.S. will fight proxy wars in South America and sub-Saharan Africa? Conflict is never a sure thing. However, this information is deep background for "breaking news" circa 2026.