L5 News: Review – Strategic Metals

by John S. Lewis

From L5 News, September 1983

Book Review:
The Strategic Metals War, by James E. Sinclair and Robert Parker
(Crown Publishers, 185 pp., $17.50)

If Europe and America may he called the front or the arena of the major battles between socialism and imperialism, the unequal nations and their colonies, with their raw materials, fuel, food and vast store of manpower, must he regarded as the rear, the reserve of imperialism. To win a war it is necessary not only to triumph at the front, but also to revolutionize the enemy’s rear, his reserves. —Josef Stalin.

The Earth is a geochemically differentiated planet. Early in its evolution it underwent extensive melting, during which dense metallic elements and metal sulfides settled to its center to form Earth’s core. Accordingly, a number of metallic elements, including gold, cobalt, the platinum metals, and nickel are very badly depeleted in the crust. To make matters even worse, the accessible reserves of a number of minerals, especially the metals, are very unequally distributed within the crust. For example, 99% of our planet’s known crustal reserves of the platinum metals are located in southern Africa or in the Soviet Union. These same areas contain 98% of the world’s manganese ore, 97% of the vanadium, and 96% of the chromium. When we make steel, we use manganese from the Republic of South Africa and Gabon, and chromium from South Africa and the USSR. High-performance jet engines are made of alloys containing cobalt from Zaire. A wide range of industrial catalysts and corrosion-resistant coatings are made from platinum-group elements, which also are supplied mainly by South Africa and the USSR. For each of these vitally important resources we are far more dependent on the Soviet Union and South Africa then we are upon OPEC for petroleum. The cobalt market has already undergone one episode of price volatility reminiscent of the heyday of OPEC, and we can scarcely place our trust in the unfailing stability and goodwill of these suppliers. Would the USSR look with favor on an American request for enough titanium to build the B-1?

While a South Africa-USSR cartel boggles the mind, and is surely not a near-term likelihood, we must bear in mind the great emphasis the USSR places on infiltration of southern Africa. In view of the racial policies of South Africa, how enthusiastic would the United States be about the prospect of defending it against sabotage, inciting of rebellion, and guerilla infiltration by Cuban-trained troops from neighboring Marxist states? Many of the deep mines in South Africa are very vulnerable to sabotage, and many of the mineral sources in other southern African nations are dependent upon relatively fragile transporation links with the outside world.

This interesting and provocative book gives a history of the strategic resources problem, capsule sketches of the sources and uses of each of a number of strategic minerals, and brief political profiles of a number of the nations that figure prominently in this drama. The thesis of the authors is that a strategic metals war is already in progress. They suggest how individual investors may profit from specualtion in these metals by purchase of diversified portfolios of metals, a point of less than urgent interest to the present reviewer.

Here, if anywhere, the “Limits to Growth” philosophy seems to be epitomized. Assuming we do indeed have virtually complete information about the distribution of these elements on Earth, what can he done to alleviate this problem? Are we constrained to the narrowest exercise of free-market initiative, contenting ourselves with squirreling away our platinum bars and flasks of mercury for personal profit (and providing the nation with a host of little backyard stockpiles), or can the larger issue be addressed?

In fact, the crust of the Earth is a terrible place to search for these elements. Almost any random asteroid has a higher concentration of the platinum-group and precious metals than the richest mineral deposits on Earth, and many are fated to end up on Earth in the long run: thousands of asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit or approach it closely are likely to survive less than 10 million years: the main threat to them is collision with Earth. These bodies are energetically much closer to us than the surface of the Moon, they are enormously more diverse in composition than the lunar crust, and many or most of them have not undergone geochemical differentiation.

The Spacewatch program at the University of Arizona will be beginning its systematic, dedicated search for Earth-approaching asteroids this year with a 36-inch telescope, and will move up to a 72-inch telesope soon thereafter. This program may discover and map the orbits of over 100 small, nearby asteroids per year. The available population of close asteroids over 100 meters in size is probably several thousand. It is likely that most of the meteorite classes that fall on Earth originate on these bodies, and hence our knowledge of the compositions of these meteorites is direct knowledge of the compositions of many nearby asteroids: unfortunately, however, we have not yet discovered most of these asteroids, and therefore have not examined their visible and infrared reflection spectra. In a few short years we will have this data, and we will know a great deal about what comes from where. Small nearby asteroids that have already been discovered can send material to Earth with a velocity change of under 100 meters per second. This is much less than 1% of the energy needed to lift an equal-sized payload oft the Moon, and less than 0.01% of that needed to reach a low-Earth orbit (LEO) from terra firma.

Any person interested in strategic materials would do well to learn about space resources: any person interested in space development would do well to read this book. The welding of these two constituencies may be the key to both large-scale space industrialization and the shattering of strategic material monopolies. The economic incentive to establish a politically secure source of strategic materials also may provide, virtually free of charge, much leftover mass to shield satellites in LEO, and may provide a viable rationale for the use of the space station in the processing of space materials.


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