2012 marks the second year American Elements has published its annual Endangered Elements List (EEL12): a list of elements which by their scarcity and technological importance threaten America's long-term prospects. America is about to face a crisis that will determine whether it will hold its place as the largest economy and most powerful nation in the world.
Today it is a constant refrain that the way out of our present fiscal difficulties is for America to get back in the business of making things. Manufacturing generates the needed jobs and resulting prosperity that have pulled us out of each recession for the last 150 years.
American innovation, particularly in the area of green technology, it is said will foster whole new industries, jobs and economic growth at the beginning of the 21st century similar to the impact made at the beginning of the 20th century by the inventions of Alexander Graham Bell (telephones), Thomas Edison (electricity) and Henry Ford (cars).
While much of this is true, innovation is in fact only the starting point. To manufacture the products flowing from great ideas, a nation must also have access to the critical materials on which the discoveries are based. Each of the elements on the periodic table has its own somewhat alchemistic properties. These properties underlie every great invention. Bell and Edison were successful because they could rely on the copper of the southwest needed to build the telephone lines and power lines their inventions required. Ford could reach to the iron of the Appalachians for the key components of the steel to build his cars and Texas for the fuel to power them. The coming green technology innovations of the 21st century, such as solar panels, electric motors, fuel cells and wind turbines, will also require large amounts of various elements. However, the elements of the 21st century are very different from the ones that mattered in the 20th century. Copper, iron, nickel and tin have given way to somewhat exotic sounding elements a lot further down the Periodic Table; materials that all Americans need to quickly get familiar with because at present we produce almost NONE of them. Additionally, we have made virtually no effort to deal with this strategic gap in our ability to manufacture the things we invent; either domestically or in our foreign policy towards mineral-rich nations. The primary purpose of American Elements' annual Endangered Elements List (EEL) is to bring attention to this crisis and to educate Americans as to (1) which elements are critical, (2) what makes them essential and endangered and (3) what other nations, particularly China, are doing to assure they can produce what they (or we) invent. The 5 elements that made the list this year are:
- Niobium: Niobium is an essential ingredient in structural steel. It increases steel's strength and toughness. It is also used extensively in the super alloys from which jet engines are produced making it critical to the U.S. military and aerospace industries. Yet at present a single nation produces virtually all of the world's niobium. That nation is Brazil, which last year produced 58,000 of the 63,000 total tons produced worldwide. Should Brazil suddenly discontinue niobium exports due to worker strikes, for geopolitical reasons or other events, it would have an immediate dramatic impact on American manufacturers.
Antimony: All car batteries contain antimony to improve their charging ability. For the U.S. auto industry to compete with other newly emerging national auto industries, America will require a ready access to antimony. Additionally, in the form of antimony oxide, it is an essential ingredient in flame retardants required for fire protection. Yet America produces no antimony and 90 percent of the world's antimony production comes only from China. Strontium: Strontium in the form of strontium nitrate is the propellant that causes air bags in cars to open. Yet again the U.S. is 100 percent reliant on foreign producers, with three countries -- China, Spain and Mexico -- controlling most of its production. Platinum: If you look at a periodic table you might note that all the metals found in a jewelry store are touching each other in a little island in the center. Gold, silver, platinum and palladium form a class of metals we commonly call the "precious metals" because unlike most other metals they always remain shiny and lustrous. However, they also share other even more significant properties for industry and science. They constitute the catalysts which run much of our modern industrial world. Look hard enough in the catalytic converter on your family car and you will find platinum. We can make neither food nor energy without these precious metal catalysts. Yet, the U.S. produces essentially none of its platinum consumption. Nearly all of the world's platinum production comes from one country -- South Africa -- and much of the balance from Russia. The two countries combined account for 86 percent of world production. The heavy future demand for precious metals, particularly platinum, as catalysts in industry and as safe havens of choice for emerging wealth will put significant pressure on their availability in the future. Yttrium: Yttrium is an essential ingredient in many green technologies. It is also in every auto spark plug and every medical laser. Today China is nearly the only nation in the world producing yttrium.