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The GAO Speaks! (Why We Should All Listen)

Posted by admin at 10:27 AM on Apr 14, 2010

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By Clint Cox

Today the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly released its eagerly anticipated report entitled Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain”.

Although there are no colossal revelations in the report, it is a fascinating read and shows the thorough nature of the GAO. In putting together the report, they contacted:

  • Department of the Interior
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Defense
  • Various members of industry and academia

They go through a number of issues in the report, including a look at key rare earth processing steps (emphasis mine):

  • Mining rare earth ore from the mineral deposit
  • Separating the rare earth ore into individual rare earth oxides
  • Refining the rare earth oxides into metals with different purity levels
  • Forming the metals into rare earth alloys
  • Manufacturing the alloys into components, such as permanent magnets, used in defense and commercial applications

When simplified, the above list gives us the following stages of rare earth products:

  • Ore
  • Oxides
  • Metals
  • Alloys
  • Components

There are different players involved at each of the above stages, and many smaller stages between—so the complexity of what the GAO is undertaking here (an understanding of REEs in the defense supply chain) is no small endeavor.

When looking at rebuilding the supply chain, the following statement is made:

Based on industry estimates, rebuilding a U.S. rare earth supply chain may take up to 15 years and is dependent on several factors, including securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies, and acquiring patents, which are currently held by international companies.

15 years seems optimistic to me, but I’m all for rolling up some sleeves and getting to work!

It is also clear from this report that other agencies have recently researched, or are currently researching the rare earth issue, including:

  1. DOD study to be completed September 2010
  2. Air Force’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate internal report 2003
  3. Army’s Armament Research Center informal efforts to understand dependency on REEs
  4. Naval Surface Warfare Center informal efforts to understand dependency on REEs
  5. Navy considered funding Mountain Pass in 2006 under Title III program
  6. Department of Commerce roundtable
  7. The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President interagency meeting recently
  8. Department of Energy R&D projects
  9. Department of Energy strategic plan for REEs being developed

This report is critical because it outlines the efforts underway by our government to understand important topics surrounding the rare earths. The government is a powerful force, and it can have a profound impact on the industry as a whole. That there is so much interest from the government is phenomenal — how it plays out will be worth watching!

Now we wait for everyone’s response! Like a great soap opera – how will the media respond? How will the different agencies work together? Will this affect the current legislation being considered by Congress (HR4866)?

If you’ve missed the rare earth show up until now — there still may be plenty of action to come!