The War for the Periodic Table

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With all eyes focused on President Barack Obama's long-awaited Afghanistan speech and the ongoing conflict in Iraq, there would seem to be little bandwidth available for another war-this one to secure the resources needed for critical military systems.

Yet it's clear that, long before wars are waged on the battlefield, they can be won or lost in the R&D facilities and on the defense industrial production lines that develop and build the weapons systems used for decades at a time. In some cases, decisions made years before a conflict materializes can provide or deny a nation the raw materials of victory.

This knowledge is not at all new to war fighters, who have long understood the need to preserve ready access to raw materials necessary for military needs. For precisely this reason and for most of the 20th Century, the U.S. maintained a strategic materials stockpile, with an inventory tending towards the prosaic: rubber, tin and other basic consumables required to feed the 20th Century war-fighting machine.

World Wars I, II and the long Cold War may be over, but the imperative for resource readiness lives on--with a 21st Century twist: today's quest is in many respects a war for the Periodic Table, exotic elements that comprise key components in today's high-tech weapons systems.

Case in point: Rhenium, or Atomic Number 75 on Mendeleev's Table. Its existence was inferred by the famed Russian chemist, who left a gap in his original table back in 1869, one of many goads to physicists aiming to make a name for themselves. Discovered in 1925 by German researchers (the name derives from the Rhine River), rhenium remains today one of the last elements added to the Table.

Only in the last 20 years has rhenium taken hold in a number of specialized uses. The amount produced worldwide each year-- 40 metric tons, or roughly the collective weight of a dozen Cadillac Escalade SUVs--belies its outsized importance. In the commercial economy, rhenium is used to process lead-free gasoline, in gas-to-liquid power plants and in the jet engines for the Boeing 777. In the national security sphere, rhenium is used in the small rocket thrusters that reposition satellites in geo-synch orbit, as a super-alloy in the high-performance jet engines that power the F-15, F-16, F-18, the F-22 Raptor and the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which goes into production in 2010-- as well as in stealth aircraft. Aerospace engineers prize the metal for its ability to retain its strength, shape and conductive properties at extremely high temperatures.

Rhenium isn't mined; rather, it is recovered, extracted as a byproduct during the processing of copper and molybdenum. Special scrubbers capture rhenium particles in the flue-dust thrown off by the roasters. Otherwise, the opportunity lost, this critical material literally goes up in smoke.

Yet the preferred method of obtaining rhenium in the U.S. today is not to scrub and sequester it, but simply to buy it. With approximately 14% of the rhenium we use each year produced here in the U.S., the remaining 86% comes from suppliers abroad, primarily Chile and Kazakhstan.

In that foreign dependence lies our vulnerability to supply disruption, accidental or intended. Call it the flip side of globalization: The just-in-time economy that relies increasingly on global sourcing creates potential for a "not in time" choke point with serious consequences for our national security readiness. The U.S.'s ability to field systems critical to our national security relies on supply chains that could be severed with little or no notice.

What can we do to ensure that rhenium remains readily available, especially for critical defense needs? The United States Government could buy and bank it, adding the metal to the list of 20 materials now inventoried in the present National Defense Stockpile. We could institute incentives for U.S.-based copper and moly miners to fit out their roasters to capture rhenium that's lost today. We could encourage friendly nations to do the same (think Canada, for instance, rather than Kazakhstan), on the theory that the next best thing to domestic sourcing is supply from reliable allies. Presently, however, we're doing none of the above. Although in certain Department of Defense circles some are beginning to worry. At least that's a start.

Nor is rhenium an isolated example. One-third of the elements on the Periodic Table are critical to one or more strategic systems as defined by the U.S. Department of Defense. Only a handful of these elements are present in any amount in the current U.S. National Defense Stockpile, while we depend on foreign sources of supply--at levels of 80, 90 and even 100%--for many metals and minerals. According to a 2008 study by the National Research Council, "...the operation and future of the National Defense Stockpile have never been high on the agenda of the DoD leadership, nor do they seem to be now."

That mindset must change--lest in some not-so-distant conflict, the U.S. finds itself like the gleaming idol in Nebuchadnezzar's dream: brought down not by feet of clay, but by a missing tincture of rhenium or some other exotic element which grounds our highest-tech warfighting machines.

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