American industry has a voracious appetite for minerals. The manufacture of a typical automobile , for example, requires not only such familiar metals as iron, copper , lead , and aluminum , but also such less-familiar metals as manganese, platinum, molybdenum, and vanadium. For the time being, the United States has an abundant supply of many critical minerals. The country as of 2002 is essentially self-sufficient in such major metals as iron, copper, lead, and aluminum. In each case, we import less than a quarter of the metals used in industrial production.
There are some minerals, however, that do not occur naturally to any considerable extent in the United States. For example, the United States has essentially no reserves of columbium (niobium), strontium, manganese, tantalum, or cobalt; sheet mica; or bauxite ore. To the extent that these minerals are important in various industrial processes, they are regarded as critical or strategic minerals. Some examples of strategic minerals are tin, silver, cobalt, manganese, tungsten, zinc, titanium, platinum, chromium, bauxite, and diamonds. The United States must import at least half the amount of each of these minerals that it uses each year.
Ensuring a constant and dependable supply of strategic minerals is a complex political problem. In some cases, the minerals we need can be obtained from friendly nations with whom we can negotiate relatively easily. Canada, for example, supplies a large part of the nickel , columbium, gallium, tantalum, cadmium , and cesium used by American industry. Nickel may be obtained from Norway; cobalt and antimony from Belgium; and fluorspar from Italy.
Other nations on whom we depend, however, are less friendly, less dependable, or less stable. The southern African nations of Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa, for example, are major suppliers of such strategic minerals as chromium, gold, platinum, vanadium, manganese, and diamonds. Africa also has large deposits of copper, cobalt and chromium. When these nations experience political unrest, supplies of these minerals may become scarce. A report issued by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in November 2000 underscored the point that ongoing American investment in Africa is necessary because of our need for the continent's strategic minerals.
Since 1980, the United States government has tried to protect American industry, especially defense industries, from the danger of running out of strategic minerals. Some analysts have feared that political factors might result in the loss of certain minerals that are needed by industry, particularly those used in the manufacture of military hardware. In 1984, the United States Congress established the National Critical Materials Council (NCMC) to advise the President on issues involving strategic minerals. The Council monitored domestic and international needs and trends for nearly a decade to ensure the nation's access to a dependable supply of strategic minerals. In 1993, the NCMC was placed under the supervision of the newly established National Science and Technology Council.
A similar monitoring function has been performed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), a division of the Department of Defense dating back to World War II. The DLA maintains and administers the Defense National Stockpile Center, or DNSC, which sells and maintains strategic and critical materials in order to reduce the country's dependence on foreign sources of supply. The DNSC is presently located in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
In addition to political unrest, however, the supply of strategic minerals depends on humankind's general management of the earth's nonrenewable resources . Of the minerals in common use in manufacturing and industry, 80 are in abundant supply. There are, however, about 18 minerals that are expected to be in short supply around the globe by 2015; these include gold, silver, mercury , lead, sulfur, tin, tungsten, and zinc. It is estimated that the earth's stores of these minerals will be 80% depleted by 2040. Strategies for lowering present levels of use in the developed nations include recycling ; inventing new substitute materials and finding new uses for old ones; decreasing the size of products; and extending the lifespan of items made from strategic minerals. A recent report to the Canadian government from the assistant deputy minister for the minerals and metals sector of natural resources stated that competition among nations for strategic minerals has already begun to transform the manufacturing processes used by Canadian industries as of 2002.
[David E. Newton and Rebecca J. Frey Ph.D. ]
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