The Washington Post’s Brad Plummer penned a blog worth reading concerning the fragility of the materials undergirding modern society. Writing about a paper from the national academy of sciences, Plummer notes:
“A huge chunk of modern-day technology, from hybrid cars to iPhones to flat-screen TVs to radiation screens, use dozens of different metals and alloys. A computer chip typically involves more than 60 different elements that are specifically selected to optimize performance, like europium or dysprosium.
And that’s long raised a concern: What would happen if we run short of any of these valuable metals? . . . A fascinating recent paper in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science looks at 62 different metals that are widely used in modern-day industry. For a dozen metals, potential substitutes are either inadequate or flat-out unavailable. And there are no “excellent” substitutes for any of the 62 metals. A shortage of any of them could do some damage.”
This is a topic near and dear to my heart as the NCPA has been writing about the potentially dangerous shortage of certain critical metals, “rare earths” for a number of years now. Potential shortages of these metals are due to a number of factors, only one of which is natural scarcity. Too often, the single biggest threat to the availability of these metals is political control. Another factor is artificial politically ginned up demand for these metals in non-essential but politically favored technologies. Plummer’s blog discusses some of these issues.
The NCPA has examined the threats to national defense posed by potential shortages of rare earths. We have also examined how green energy mandates make the country more dependent on China for rare earths in the short to mid-term. And we have looked at the prospects for sources of rare earths outside of China and for domestic production.