Via our friend and ARPN expert Simon Moores’ Twitter feed, we came across a three-part must-read series for Bloomberg View, in which author and policy expert David S. Abraham discusses the role of rare earths in today’s increasingly high-tech world. Perhaps most interestingly, Abraham clarifies a common misconception in part two of the series:
“Although the multiple functions of our new gadgets appear to come with the opportunity to use fewer raw materials — after all, the iPhone is a computer, book, and music player — the reality is we use far more total resources.
Indeed, some new products use less rare metals than their previous iterations. For example, LED displays use far fewer rare-earth elements per lamp than their fluorescent cousins. But other times, an apparent reduction in materials use is just a displacement.”
As he explains, laptops today may use fewer rare earths because flash drives are getting smaller, but to offset reduced memory capacities, usage of REE-magnets for hard drives in cloud-data storage centers is skyrocketing.
Abraham cites the electric toothbrush, the production of which requires roughly 35 metals, as an example of the “’electronification’ of what were once simple products is now embedded with rare metals.” Supplying these 35 metals, he says, requires an extensive supply chain spanning six continents. The dangers associated with the inherent risk of supply disruptions stretch far beyond dental hygiene:
“Because whole industries are built on just a few rare metals, disruptions to their supply can have profound global implications and give resource-rich countries tremendous leverage. (…) And as these metals are critical to green technology as well as underpin complex weapons systems and ultimately a country’s national defense, more is on the line than spinning toothbrushes.
Abraham’s warning in part three of the series should sound familiar to our ARPN readers, as it reflects concerns we have consistently raised over the past few years:
“Increasingly today, national economic security and the fate of many businesses are beholden to a handful of unheralded metals, produced often in one country, in many cases China. As our products become more advanced and supply lines intertwined, manufacturers become tied to the properties of specific rare metals, leaving them hostage to the resources. Without more robust supply lines, the War over the Periodic Table may be just beginning.”
Read the entire three-part series here.