L5 News: Review – Strategic Materials

by John S. Lewis

From L5 News, June 1985

Book Review
Strategic Materials — A World Survey
by Rae Weston
Rowman and Allanheld, Totowa, NJ (1984), 189 p.

This small book is packed with information on the production, reserves, market stability, and pricing of a number of militarily or industrially strategic materials. It is in several ways reminiscent of another book, The Strategic Metals War by James E. Sinclair and Robert Parker (Crown/Arlington House, NY, 185 p., 1983) (reviewed L5 News, September 1983). Weston’s book makes no reference to the “earlier” volume for good reasons: most of the book was written in 1981, and few references to statistics or events after 1980 can be found in it (although the most recent references are to 1983 publications). Sinclair liberally cites events and references through the end of 1981. Both books are oriented toward the needs and interests of investors, although the books differ in emphasis. Sinclair, for example, devotes much of his book to persuading his readers to invest in strategic materials. Stockpiling of critical and strategic materials by individual investors is strongly encouraged by Sinclair.

Weston’s book, however, is strikingly different in tone. He offers a forthright critique of the concept of stockpiling as an answer to supply disruptions and price manipulation. He argues that stockpiling fails to address the fundamental problem and merely attempts to assuage some of the symptoms of the disease. He also says that stockpiling by damping upward price excursions has the very undesirable effect of discouraging investment in new production (and recycling) facilities. Thus, in the long run, stockpiling may force the number of primary producers to remain very small. This result Weston views as a recipe for future supply disruptions and price manipulation. Weston also suggests specific changes in the marketing and pricing mechanisms for strategic materials to make manipulation much more difficult.

Strategic Materials contains an unusual number of grammatical, typographical, and editorial oddities. For example, we learn on page 64 that “Mexico used to produce mercury from underground mines at Halikoy in Izmir and at Konya.” Presumably this was before Turkey won its independence from Mexico. “Carbonides,” “leptoxides,” “carbontrides,” fierce-sounding “demented carbide,” and assorted other exotic “chemicals” abound.

Weston sees chromium, beryllium, and niobium as the three least stable critical materials. He adds that the situation is similar for germanium, cobalt, the platinum group metals, manganese, and vanadium, except that the latter have potential sources that could be exploited within a few years if the decision were made to do so and if a price rise justified the expense of developing the new sources.

All discussions of potential sources in these and other books are predicated upon the assumption that the finite supplies of these materials in the crust of the Earth are the only resources available. While this assumption served well for many centuries, extrapolating such a view into the 21st century is fraught with peril. Asteroidal and meteoritic metals (abundant on the surfaces of most near-Earth asteroids and present at the level of about 0.1 % in the lunar regolith) are rich in nickel and cobalt, have concentrations of platinum-group metals richer than those in any known terrestrial ore deposit, and contain significant traces of nonmetals such as germanium, gallium, and arsenic.

Sinclair comments on page 104 that the development of Solar Power Satellites could greatly increase the demand for indium, gallium, germanium, and others. But the delivery of a pound of payload to low Earth orbit from the Earth requires several thousand times as much propellant as does the return of material from a nearby asteroid via aerobraking. The popular notion of the great expense of space flight is due to the high energetic cost of lifting materials out of Earth’s deep gravity well. Other options are now available to us. Since military and civilian demands for water, hydrogen, and oxygen propellants, as well as structural metals in Earth orbit may force the exploitation of nearby space resources for economic reasons, we ought to look closely at the possibility that the content of strategic and critical materials in this extraterrestrial material may be exploited for Earthside as well as in-orbit use.

Weston’s plea for the development of new sources even at the cost of temporarily increased prices at least holds the potential of stabilizing the strategic materials supply and price structure by rendering the market less vulnerable to manipulation. The exploitation of extraterrestrial resources, if undertaken for any reason whatsoever, may offer not only a greatly diversified supply of many of the most critical materials, but also may offer significantly lower market prices than any plausible extrapolation of terrestrial supplies could promise.

John S. Lewis is a Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona.