Rare earth metals or rare earth elements (REE)
This issue is particularly interesting from the point of view of the military industry and other hi-tech production worldwide and … in the framework of great powers.
Rare earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table of chemical elements.
The group consists of yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium). Scandium is found in most rare earth element deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth element.
The rare earth elements are all metals and the group is often referred to as the rare earth metals. These metals have many similar properties and that often causes them to be found together in geologic deposits. They are also referred to as “rare earth oxides” because many of them are typically sold as oxide compounds.
Civil use of REEs
Rare earth metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day such as computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and much more. During the past twenty years, there has been an explosion in demand for many items that require rare earth metals.
Critical and strategic defense use REEs
Rare earth elements play an essential role in the defense industry. The military uses night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, communications equipment, GPS equipment, batteries, and other defense electronics. Rare earth metals are key ingredients for making the very hard alloys used in armored vehicles and projectiles that shatter upon impact. Substitutes can be used for rare earth elements in some defense applications; however, those substitutes are usually not as effective and that diminishes military superiority. Here below is the list of key uses of REEs:
The rare earth element rhenium is a key component of jet engines. Rare earth elements used in modern-day jet engines are especially crucial and of strategic value. Rhenium is used as an alloy mixture added to molybdenum and tungsten and erbium is added to vanadium to lower its hardness and make it more malleable for use in vanadium steel. Rhenium and erbium are used in all modern jet engines.
Military infrastructures of communications are essential to providing military commanders with an overall picture of the battlefield. These incorporate numerous rare earth elements, including europium, lutetium, lanthanum, yttrium and neodymium. Terbium is also used in naval sonar systems and in radiation and chemical detection systems. Rare earth permanent magnets are used in waveguide tubes that amplify microwaves and are incorporated on radar systems and satellites. Line of sight laser communications are also finding applications as well due to their faster transmission speeds, and Erbium-doped fiber amplifiers and signal repeaters can transmit large amounts of data quickly over a vast area.
Targeting and Weapons Systems
Modern weapons systems rely on high-powered lasers for targeting and acquisition including air- and vehicle-based laser systems. These systems rely on such as yttrium, europium and terbium to achieve high-powered energy resolution and amplification. Europium has been used for years in the red phosphors of computer monitors and television screens.
As the production of electric cars ramps up, the demand for rare earth super magnets is expected to rise. The military is also expected to become a major purchaser of electric motors. These motors feature compact and powerful magnets and require such rare earth elements as terbium, dysprosium, samarium, praseodymium and neodymium.
Defense and Electronic Warfare
Many modern defense electronics systems require a portable high-capacity power source or the ability to use high-energy storage and amplification. These include storage batteries and electronic jamming devices (known as ECM pods) used in the field, as well as more exotic defensive systems in development, such as microwave-generating Area Denial Systems and Electromagnetic Railguns. Yttrium-iron-garnet (YIG) is a key material used in electronic countermeasures for what are known as dispersive delay lines and microwave filters. These filters are robust and guarantee a high signal-to-jamming ratio and are an essential component of electronic warfare systems.
Guidance and Control Systems
Modern smart weapons rely on sophisticated motors and actuators to steer them toward their targets. To accomplish this feat, these missiles and bombs incorporate rare earth elements such as terbium, dysprosium, samarium, praseodymium and neodymium. These are necessary for high-performance guidance systems. Neodymium is used in NIB (neodymium, iron and boron) supermagnets and samarium-cobalt magnets resist corrosion and can operate at high temperatures. Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) missile are examples which rely on rare earth elements for high-performance guidance systems.
Production of REE
Although the United States dominated the mining of rare earth elements in the 1960s through the 1980s, it is now mostly reliant on imports from China for such commodities.
China has risen as a world unquestioning leader in this critical mining sector, as seen in the tables below:
(source: USGS Rare earth statistics and information 2020)
Russia is investing heavily (over $1billion) in the national endeavor to become self-sufficient and a net exporter in rare earth elements by 2020. Russia has clearly pointed out the great strategic value of REEs in the state plans and therefore has increased both ore search, development of deposit fields and productions facilities. Trade war and other political disputes between China and the US have severely disturbed trade of REEs between those countries.
REE, the missing element in the Korean Puzzle
In the year end 2013, first news came out when an Australian, private company SRE Minerals announced the discovery in North Korea of what was believed to be the largest deposit of rare earth elements anywhere in the world.
REE deposit at Jongju, North Korea is situated about 150km from the capital Pyongyang to north-northwest. The initial assessment of the Jongju target indicates a total mineralization potential of 6 billion tons with total 216.2 million tons rare-earth-oxides. The 216 million tons Jongju deposit, theoretically worth several trillions of dollars, would more than double the current global known resource of REE oxides which according to the US Geological Survey is pegged at 110 million tons. Further explorations have been made since then by SRE Minerals. When more confirmed information came forth in 2017, even the Pentagon and American authorities became interested in.
If the US does not attempt to make a serious play with the DPRK’s allegedly vast rare earth resources, the winner will be Beijing and Moscow. Now it seems, due to the US presidential election and corona pandemic, the Trump administration may be late in the game, since key discussions in late 2017 created the roadmap, set for South Korea, China and Russia to attach the DPRK to Eurasia integration, developing its agriculture, hydropower and – crucially – mineral wealth.
“REE rush” – worldwide
Just like the gold rushes of California in 1850s and Canada’s Klondike in 1890s, the world is experiencing a frenzy to obtain mining rights in pursuit of today’s “gold,” namely rare earth minerals. Nations around the world are scrambling to secure reserves containing rare earth minerals. China, where one-third of the world’s rare earth minerals are currently found, has severely restricted the export of the minerals to friends and competitors. China’s export restrictions have sent nations around the world on search missions to secure both known and untapped rare earth deposits.
One such mother lode of rare earth minerals has been discovered in the eastern southern Pacific Ocean. The estimates are that the deep ocean region contains twice the amount of rare earths than found in China. The discovery that the South Pacific region is rich in rare earths has led European nations, including France and Britain, which maintain colonies in the area, re-staking their colonial footprints.
It seems also highly likely that China’s active and robust operations in the South China Sea, constructing artificial islands and military bases, may be based on confirmed, undisclosed knowledge of possible REE depots.
With the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, rare earth reserves have been discovered in Greenland, a “self-governing” territory of Denmark. Moves by the Greenland government to seek independence from Denmark and permit Chinese companies to mine rare earth minerals have met with stiff opposition from Denmark, the United States, and NATO. Currently, American, Chinese and French firms are waging a political and economic influence “war” for access to various REEs in DR of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
No doubt, great power conflicts over strategic minerals are inevitable. The dramas will likely unfold at or near the mines or along the transportation lines and especially at world’s strategic chokepoints the US military is now generally tasked to control. Again, the power equation is written to include both control of possession and denial of possession by others.