Supply Risk Extends Beyond Rare Earths

If we can say anything about the rare earth debate, we can say this: the discussion has rightfully moved from “rare earth metals” to 43 additional minerals, according to a new report titled “Reviewing Risk: Critical Metals and National Security,” released by the Advanced Materials Policy Network.

Sadly, the 34-page report has a full 10 pages devoted to the fact that the US government agencies and organizations tasked with assessing the problem with these metals can’t seem to agree on a definition for them — which won’t really help with moving forward on policy, let alone managing commodity risk.

This lack of definition, according to Daniel McGroarty and Sandra Wirtz, authors of the study, has hindered our nation’s ability to create policy solutions that effectively address the supply risk inherent in our dependency (mostly on China) of rare earth metals and other strategic minerals.

What conclusions can we make based on the study?

The authors of the study held a one-day conference on Wednesday to release the report and explore some of the national security concerns surrounding current policy-making efforts.

The Top of the Pyramid

The study’s authors placed 14 metals into the top of its “Risk Pyramid.” The list includes: aluminum, beryllium, chromium, cobalt, manganese, niobium, columbium, platinum, tantalum, tin, titanium, tungsten, yttrium and zinc.

Using the report’s methodology for calculating what metals receive the top “risk billing,” an outside observer might immediately draw several conclusions, some of which came to the fore during the conference. Consider the following:

  1. Many of the “conflict minerals” make it to the top of the risk pyramid. Including some of these metals in broader policy discussions involving more formal strategies to secure long-term supply make good sense. After all, tin, tantalum and others are used in many electronic products both for military and commercial applications
  2. The risk pyramid helps to define which of the rare earth metals (not all) have the greatest strategic impact on national security (don’t worry, you neodymium followers, that metal falls just under the top 14 metals).
  3. Even our friends, the base metals, get their 15 minutes of fame. We have often wondered why some of the critical base metals such as aluminum, tin and zinc have failed to make it to the national stage when it comes to national security.

Several Overarching Themes Involving Security of Supply

Keynote speaker Major-General Robert Latiff, research professor and director of the Intelligence and Security Research Center at George Mason University, identified several themes with regard to a national policy around these strategic minerals:

  1. Resource demands are enormous and rapidly accelerating
  2. Materials availability is limited and highly concentrated
  3. US processing ability has been diminished and is limited
  4. Geopolitics is unpredictable
  5. Resource demands will be increasingly contentious
  6. Traditional methods of doing things don’t seem to be working

In a follow-up post, we’ll explore some of the solutions offered along with our own commentary.

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