They’re used to build everything from stealth choppers to lasers and night vision goggles. They’re even essential to making smartphones and hybrid cars. They’re rare earths, 17 hard-to-find chemical elements with unique physical and chemical properties: Some are superconductive, others are amazingly heat-resistant. It makes the rare earths very much in demand — especially at the Pentagon. The problem is, 95 percent of their market is controlled by China, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Now, to solve its rare earth elements woes, the Department of Defense is taking a two-pronged approach: They’re asking the scientific community to come up with innovative ways to mine these scarce materials in the United States, and find alternative materials to make rare earths unnecessary.
“The Department of Defense relies on many products that incorporate materials that are not found or produced in sufficient quantities domestically to meet potential crucial defense needs,” states the Office of the Secretary of Defense in a solicitation for research proposals, published at the end of July.
The geopolitical implications of rare earths are nothing new. In 2009 Congress was already asking the Pentagon to look for alternatives and lessen the U.S. dependency on foreign imports after the Chinese government said it was considering limiting exports of the minerals. Rare earths are not rare in nature, they’re just very hard to find in heavy concentration, and extracting them is both extremely expensive and environmentally dangerous.