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Rare Earths

A.T. Jakeway - September 20th, 2011  
Our technological vulnerability

Remember this poem from your school days? “For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost/ For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost/ For the want of a horse, a rider was lost/ For the want of a rider, a message was lost/ For the want of a message, a battle was lost/ For the want of a battle, a country was lost/ For the want of a nail.”

This situation has been repeated again and again and is still happening.

In World War II with the German steel factories turning out weapons for the Nazi forces, an insurance specialist was called in by the Allies to identify the weak link in the German military production. The simple solution was this: German steel manufacturing demanded sulfuric acid. The source was a single plant in southern Germany and the acid was produced in ceramic vats. All that was needed was for a spy saboteur to take a hammer to the acid vats and break them. This was done and German steel production was set back for months until new ceramic vats could be made.

During the Vietnam War when the primary infantry weapon was the M16 rifle, the ammunition was produced in one factory in East Alton, Illinois. As the story goes, one day a carpenter moved an electrician’s cable. Carpenters weren’t supposed to touch electricians’ stuff, and there was a strike that shut down the production of the M16 ammunition. In a short time the troops in Vietnam were running out of ammunition, and the government had to see that a couple more factories were contracted to make more ammunition, even after the strike ended, all because of a minor labor dispute.

I learned that only one company in the country made brushes for electric motors, If they went out of production that would stop all companies from building electric motors.

JAPAN & PAINT

Today, because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, a key ingredient for U.S. auto production is no longer available. It is pigment for the paint used in auto production. That is the weak link.

More sinister is this one: five state-of-the art foundries were built in Spain for the man ufacture of windmills to generate electricity.

You may have seen some of those massive constructions. They are as tall as 300 feet, like a 30-story building, but the key part is the generator that makes the electricity. It’s a small unit, but the construction of the generators requires rare earth.

Rare earths are mineral substances that are hard to find with names like Yttrium, Praseodymium, Samerium, Europium, Erbium and Promethium. Many are used for the construction of lasers (Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Ytterbium, etc.). Need a nuclear battery? Then you’ll need the rare earth Promethium to build one. Aerospace aluminum, rare earth magnets, vanadium steel and many other technologically-advanced materials and products all rely on rare earths (ie., Scandium Dysprosium, Erbium).

In the case of Spain’s windmill generators, the one mine in America that produced the rare earth needed for a key part was closed because a Chinese source was more plentiful. Ah, but the Chinese also build windmills and they have announced that they are curtailing export of the essential rare earths. As a result, the five Spanish foundries are closed down, and China is on the way to cornering the world windmill production.

THE HELIUM MARKET

The United States did something similar to Germans in the days of the Hindenberg and other lighter-than-air ships of the 1930s. The U.S. is the world’s source for helium and would not sell it to the technologically-advanced Germans, so they were forced to substitute flammable hydrogen for their dirigibles. Result: poof! The fiery crash of the Hindenberg at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 was the death knell for airships. That was in spite of a flawless record of the Graf Zeppelin in making more than 70 trips from Germany to South America.

The future of an industry -- even of a country -- can depend on a single vulnerable element, even if it is as simple as a horseshoe nail. For the want of a nail.

Visit the web site www.hu.mtu.edu/ ~hlsachs where you can listen to two stories, read a third, read reviews, and fi nd links to the publishers of my books.

 
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