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A growing competition for rare-earth elements (REEs) could soon handicap a wide swath of the aerospace industry supply chain, from companies that build precision guided-weapon systems to suppliers for commercial widebody jets. The commercial aviation industry has long relied on REEs because they give materials enhanced strength and durability. They are used in everything from tires, avionics and jet engine coatings to actuators and airframe alloys. But demand is beginning to outstrip supply as more and more of the elements are needed to support production of hybrid vehicles, smart phones and other consumer products.

The rare-earth element market has already seen a panic. In 2010, China held 95% of the Earth’s supply of rare-earth elements, with the one U.S. company mining them, MolyCorp, on the verge of bankruptcy. China then established export quotas, drastically limiting the amount of rare-earth minerals on the world market. Panic and speculation increased prices through the roof – in some cases, over tenfold. Manufacturers started stockpiling and finding alternative resources for commercial use, decreasing demand somewhat. It is possible that these technological innovations will prevent a shortage entirely, as aviation and other industries rely less on less on rare-earth elements for vital components; demand will decrease faster than supply.

Eventually, China lifted its quotas, creating an influx of supply and decreasing the risk of a shortage. However, 40% of the new supply is considered “illegal”, coming from black-market mining facilities with little environmental regulation. The pollution resulting from this activity resulted in high costs, upwards of $5.5 billion. This led China to crack down on illegal rare-earth element mining operations, possibly leading to a reduction in supply. Moreover, increased use of green technology could lead to a greater need for rare-earth elements, which are speculated to hit peak levels at 2050. Deep-sea mining has been proposed to find additional supply, but hypothetical reserves on the sea floor have not yet been discovered.
Manufacturers are also facing shortages of other basic metals such as titanium. Re-design of certain components is necessary because of this shortage.

Potential hazard

  1. Production-side hazards to availability of key components and systems
  2. Environmental risks of increased mining production, traded off against increased compliance costs to mitigate these risks.

Corroborating sources and comments

2014 – As highlighted by the Resource-Efficiency Roadmap and Horizon 2020, the aviation community should aim to ensure accessibility and availability of raw materials that are needed for Western economies, whilst achieving a resource efficient economy that meets the needs of a growing population within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

October 6, 2009:

Although their added quantities are not great, the effects are very noticeable and they can be used as the additives, reducing agents, desulphurization agents, denaturization agents and regulating agents etc. of metals. Rare-earth metals seem to have excellent effects on non-ferrous metal alloys and they can improve the physical and mechanical properties of alloys. They can be used for many parts of jet engines. They can be used for helicopter structural materials, transmission castings and engine wheels and gear boxes etc. rare-earth-cobalt compound particles are a new type of permanent magnet and among them the samarium-cobalt alloy (SmCo5) has superior magnetic properties and is used to make missile detection accelerators and praseodymium-cobalt alloys are used to outfit satellites, missiles and radar. Rare-earth compounds have gained a great deal of attention in modern aviation technology as garnet materials. For example, yttrium-iron garnets are used in the microwave electronically controlled instruments of unmanned aircraft, the microwave modulators on insulators of radar and other communication systems, satellite communications, amplification circulators, wave filters, microwave integrated circuits and ultra-small wide band oscillators etc.

New Methodology Assesses Risk of Scarce Metals, Published: February 6, 2012. Yale University

Yale researchers have developed a methodology for governments and corporations to determine the availability of critical metals, according to a paper in Environmental Science & Technology. In “Methodology of Metal Criticality Determination,” the researchers evaluate the importance of scarce metals using a methodology that determines their supply risk, environmental implications, and vulnerability to supply restriction. (At the time of the first panic, China held 95% of Earth’s supply of rare earth metals. The one U.S. company mining these metals, MolyCorp, was posed for bankruptcy, while China consolidated its stranglehold on the world market. Panic and speculation increased prices through the roof – over tenfold, in some cases. As of 2015, China was still stockpiling metals and charging high tariffs on them, maintaining its control. Dated January 2015.) (Risks of rare-earth shortage were considered high between 2012 and 2014, but market changes eased those worries. Prices fell due to decreased demand, thanks to companies stockpiling materials in anticipation of a shortage. Alternative materials also reduced the demand burden to a degree, particularly in lighting. Dated February 25, 2015.) (The sudden influx of rare-earth minerals created problems of its own. 40% of the new supply is considered “illegal”, and plummeting prices ended up distorting the market. Small processing facilities under little oversight sprung up in China after the shortage, dumping copious amounts of waste in their manufacturing and driving prices down. At the time of release, China’s production outpaced market demand by a factor of three. Dated May 15, 2015.) (Speculative piece on the effect the Paris Accords would have on rare-earth mineral use. Innovation in green technology has potentially outpaced the supply of these key metals, and mines are too costly and environmentally-damaging to open willy-nilly. Increased demand from green technology could drive prices up. Dated November 20, 2015.) (With a more permanent shortage of rare-earth minerals predicted by 2050, according to a U.N. report, scientists have begun to consider the possibility of deep-sea mining. While large deposits have been speculated to lie on the sea floor, they haven’t been found yet, and the environmental risks are substantial. Twenty-seven countries have signed agreements to partake, but external sources recommend an international approach. Dated February 20, 2017.) (The massive pollution caused by China’s cottage rare-earth industry has led to crackdowns on illegal operations, increased environmental compliance costs, and manufacturing slowdown. While these have considerable environmental benefits, they also mean that the costs of rare-earth minerals are going up. In 2012, the cleanup costs of rare-earth mining were $5.5 billion; those numbers are expected to rise. Recycling rates are still quite low, due to low prices discouraging the idea. Said prices don’t account for the true costs of production or scarcity values, with nobody bearing those burdens. Consolidation could incentivize the development of alternatives. Dated March 21, 2017.)

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