5 Ways Element Shortages Could Hurt the U.S.

HomeScience & Technology5 Ways Element Shortages Could Hurt the U.S.
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Rare elements have become a hot commodity. It’s amazing to think that elements with bizarre-sounding names such as dysprosium and ytterbium help power many of the products we use every day, including our smart phones, flat-screen TVs, computers, cars and other applications. The problem: Many of these elements are becoming more scarce by the day. Here are some dilemmas that the United States may soon face based on these vanishing elements.

5. Scarce Elements Are Used In Many Popular Products

Rare earth elements are used in many everyday products we use, including smart phones and computers.

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The demands of modern technology have led to an increase in the diversity of elements incorporated into high-tech devices. Intel estimates that modern computer chips may contain almost 60 constituent elements, up from 11 in the early 1980s. A prime example is indium, used in liquid crystal displays and light-emitting diodes. Likewise, scarce rhenium is also added to the more prevalent tungsten and incorporated in lamps and ovens to improve thermal capability. Such is our dependence on rare earth elements that Byron King, an analyst with Agora Financial LLC, told CBS Marketwatch in 2009 that “We are addicted to rare earths as much as we are addicted to oil … without these elements, much of the modern economy will just plain shut down.” Coinage metals are also a finite quantity; for example, gold is even rarer than most people think; estimates have been made that all the gold mined in the past 500 years would fit into a cube 17 meters on a side. This speaks to the malleability of the element, not to mention the prevalence of “recycling” over the years. Demand for gold has recently spiked well over $1,700 a pure ounce. Copper is also in high demand, and construction sites must often employ security guards to prevent theft of copper wires and cables. It actually costs about 1.7 cents to make a modern copper-plated zinc penny, a process the U.S. government operates at a loss. Platinum is another precious metal that is used both in cancer treatment (in the form of cisplatin) and in automobile catalytic converters. In fact, when the price of platinum skyrocketed a few years back, many thieves began cutting catalytic converters out of parked cars.

4. Helium Shortage Threatens More Than Party Balloons

Helium has many critical applications.

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In 1903, the town of Dexter, Kansas, thought they would celebrate their good fortune and light a recently discovered geyser believed to be natural gas. The failure of the gas to ignite was later discovered to be due to the presence of helium. This lightest of the noble gases is rare on Earth because it’s only produced by radioactive alpha decay. In the age of airships, helium was considered to be such a valuable resource that the U.S. government set up the strategic National Helium Reserve in 1925 to stockpile a supply. Most of us are familiar with helium as a staple of birthday parties in the form of balloons, but it has much more strategic applications. Helium was used as spacecraft coolant in the Apollo program, and finds modern applications in hospital MRI machines and bar code scanners. Some experts project the world could run out of helium within 30 years, but say that the U.S. isn’t helping matters by selling off its supply from the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, driving down the market price of helium and discouraging conservation efforts. Plans call for the reserve to shut down by 2015.

3. Rare Earth Elements Are Critical For Clean Energy

Rare earth elements are essential to the growing field of green energy.

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As the economy and the power grid shifts to cleaner energy sources in an effort to fight global climate change and CO2 emissions, rare earth elements are finding new applications. Examples include lanthanum, used in nickel metal-hydride batteries in the new crop of electric cars. The aforementioned element indium also finds a role in thin film solar cells. Another current example is the predicted monopoly China has on rare earth elements that comprise Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs), which may not only raise the price of CFLs, but promote hoarding of traditional light bulbs.

2. Uranium Shortage Could Hamper Nuclear, Space Industries

A looming shortage of uranium poses problems for the nuclear energy industry.

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Many calls have gone out to return to nuclear fission power as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. That is dependent on the use of uranium. Uranium is mined primarily in Canada, Australia, Russia, and several African countries, with the U.S. accounting for only about 2.5 percent of the annual world extraction. This element also finds use in military applications in the form of uranium-depleted armor-piercing rounds. Fission of uranium means depleting the finite amount of this element available. Using the much more common element thorium in reactors may solve this. Ironically, early reactors in the 1950s moved toward uranium fission in order to produce the by-product of weapons grade plutonium-239. Another side benefit of uranium fission was the production of the isotope plutonium-238, useful in space exploration as a dedicated power source on deep-space missions. Plutonium production in the U.S. halted with the end of the Cold War, and NASA faces a dwindling supply for future missions.

1. Shortage of Elements Poses Political Problems

China controls production of more than 95 percent of rare earth elements, posing a threat to U.S. interests.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and U.S. President Barack Obama, 2010

Wars are ignited over elements more often than we realize. For example, the United States paid little attention to German interests in a small mine in Climax, Colorado, prior to the countries’ entry into World War I, when it was then revealed that the Germans were using the element molybdenum to strengthen the steel in their railway guns. The secret ingredient in samurai swords, molybdenum played a crucial role in both world wars as well as the automobile industry. Another prime example is the recent demand for tantalum and niobium ore in electronics manufacture that has funded and fueled local civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda. But perhaps the most troubling future concern for the United States is the monopoly that China enjoys on rare earth elements. China accounts for more than 95 percent of the annual production of rare earth elements, which are incorporated into everything from guided missiles and lasers to smart phones and flat-screen televisions. Already, political wrangling has occurred over the markets for these elements as recently as 2010. Other rare earth elements worth watching that are gaining importance on the world market include dysprosium, terbium, europium, and yttrium. One solution to the United States’ reliance on China for rare earth elements would be to reopen old mines and scout for new mining locations in the U.S. Midwest and Great Plains regions, which have known concentrations of rare earth elements. However, these mining operations are fraught with environmental and regulatory concerns, dealing with potential toxic waste and other issues. Another possible solution to the growing shortage of these elements would be boosting awareness of the importance of e-cycling. Unfortunately, many companies presently ship e-waste off to Third World countries, where workers melt down electronics for the precious metals within, often with no environmental controls and employing the same utensils they later use to prepare food. Tougher laws guaranteeing that e-waste is properly handled would alleviate this, as would the advent of durable electronics that only require the software to be upgraded, allowing for greater service life of the existing hardware.

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.