Here’s how the U.S. can get back on the right side of the Technochasm
While science-fiction novelists have speculated about space mining for more than 100 years, many of us probably first got the idea in our head after seeing Alien.
In that 1979 Ridley Scott-directed movie, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the rest of the Nostromo crew are on a return trip to Earth, hauling 20 million tons of mineral ore mined from an asteroid.
Despite the many obvious difficulties and extreme costs, starry-eyed futurists long have dreamed of extracting minerals and precious metals from planets, moons, asteroids, and comets and hauling them back to Earth. Others have imagined digging up iron group metals and using them for construction in space.
Earlier this month, in fact, some scientists from the University of Edinburgh speculated about using microbes to extract rare-earth elements in space mining in an article published in the journal Nature.
According to their experiments conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), a particular bacterium can extract 14 different rare-earth elements from basalt in space just as well as that microbe does on Earth. That means, according to those scientists, astronauts could mine rare-earth metals while on the moon or Mars and use them to build the technology they need in their settlements.
But I have one suggestion …
Let’s start mining rare-earth elements here in the United States before we start worrying about doing so in space.
You see, China holds a virtual monopoly on rare-earth elements.
Those are elements we need to produce 21st-century technology like electric vehicles, smartphones, artificial intelligence, 5G, missile guidance systems, and drones.
In other words, the United States needs rare-earth metals to stay on the right side of the “Technochasm” against China. As we’ve talked about here for nearly a year, the Technochasm is the sharp, and growing, wealth divide in our world that’s being driven by technology.
That’s why, as part of The Technochasm Summit we debuted a little more than a week ago, I recommended one of the very few Western miners with significant rare-earth deposits.
To find out more, read on …
How We Got Here
Rare-earth elements are a set of 17 metallic elements on the periodic table.
They have names like scandium, neodymium, and cerium.
Generally speaking, these elements are not actually very rare, but they do not typically appear in concentrated, economically feasible ore deposits. They are dispersed, which means that large, commercial quantities of these elements are relatively rare.
Inconveniently, China produces about 95% of the world’s rare-earth supply. As a group, these metals are essential for many advanced technologies, including military applications like weapons systems and high-performance aircraft.
These metals also play a key role in most of the major clean-energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Our reliance on China for these critical metals has long been a source of concern and consternation. But this anxiety did not reach a tipping point until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Suddenly, many folks in the United States realized that our overreliance on China for rare earths was not merely a theoretical problem, but a real one.
After all, if we couldn’t even obtain medical masks from China in the midst of a crisis, how would we obtain rare-earth elements?
In other words, China could easily cripple major parts of the U.S. military … it could put us on the wrong side of the Technochasm … simply by refusing to ship rare-earth metals to us.
As crazy as the current situation is, the fact that we got here is even crazier.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China produced 38% of the world’s rare-earth elements in 1993 … and 33% of the supply came from the United States. Smaller percentages came from Australia, Malaysia, Canada, and India.
However, by 2008, China accounted for more than 90% of global rare-earth element production. And by 2011, China accounted for 97% of global production.
Just look at this chart …
We are potentially putting ourselves on the wrong side of the Technochasm because of short-term thinking. As China was getting the rare-earth element industry in its chokehold, our political leaders ignored the danger and focused on how cheaply China could produce rare-earth elements.
They didn’t think for a second about the future consequences.
The consequences are serious. China could easily cripple important parts of our military … simply by keeping their U.S.-bound cargoes of rare-earth elements at port.
In fact, China threatened in 2018 to withhold rare-earth elements from the United States
Clearly, we need to make sure we stay on the right side of the Technochasm now.
Where Rare-Earth Profits Lie
American politicians from both sides of the aisle are actively working behind the scenes to restore America’s rare-earth element industry.
On September 30, President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring this reliance on China a national emergency and authorizing the use of the Defense Production Act to speed the development of rare-earth mines.
Moreover, in July, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would begin initial design work for a heavy separation facility in Texas, for which the Pentagon will provide initial funding.
The facility will process heavy rare-earth metals sourced from the flagship mine of one of the few Western producers of rare-earth metals. The company says will be the “only source of separated heavy rare earths outside China.”
The company expects to finish the planning and design work for the facility in fiscal year 2021.
This announcement could lead to soaring demand for its production, as a partial replacement for rare-earth metals from China — and it could help put the United States back on the right side of the Technochasm when it comes to rare-earth elements.
This company’s improving investment profile might not attract much attention immediately.
But because this tiny company is one of just a handful non-Chinese producers of rare-earth elements — and since it alone has a new supply agreement with the DoD — it makes sense to take a look at it right now.
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