Ever wonder why Soviets sent troops and tanks into Afghanistan in the 1970’s into what many returning troops have called a country with God-forsaken mountains and passages. Why are American, Canadian, British, and other NATO troops stationed there today?
The Taliban, terrorists, drugs, poppies, proximity to nukes in Pakastan, protecting future regional oil pipelines, etc you say…of course...that’s all true now-the official line.
But Afghanistan has something far more precious that the rest of the world wants and needs-four unexplored rare metals- lithium, caesium, tantalum and niobium.
Another important group in the periodic table are the so called "rare earth" metals-part of a total class of 17 industrially valuable "lanthanide" elements near the end of the periodic table, with less then pronounceable names. Rare-earth metals are the key ingredients in 21st Century high tech and green technology: Without them, we wouldn’t have smartphones, digital cameras, laptop screens, hybrid car batteries or precision weapons. In the 1930 we had alcohol prohibition. Imagine the teenager boycots around the world with a ban or restriction on strategic metals used in cell phones or cameras?
So brush up on your high school chemistry and the periodic table.
So what metals are on this strategic list?
In a 1981 article in Science, the Journal of the American Association of Science, the following metals were all identified as strategic, but not all as critical metals:
- Platinum, not PGMs
This year’s list, (selected by Ivan Herring at the National Academies for its Critical Minerals for Industrial Use study group) the following were added:
- Platinum and other PGM's- Palladium etc
- Rare Earth Metals - we use that phrase to denote the 17 "lanthanide" elements running from Lanthanum (La) through to Ytterbium (Yb) and Lutetium (Lu)
While not high on the currrent priority list for countries fighting in Afganistan, these rare strategic metals may jump up the list fairly quickly. I can imagine back room deals being made with Afgan war lords for mineral exploration rights and wealth sharing agreements even before predicted shortages come to pass.
Some researchers are predicting that we only have 5-10 years of supply left of the currently known and easy-to-get rare earth metals. That's a very short period of time from a strategic planning point of view, some new mines can take a decade to get off the ground-or should I say get "into the ground".( like the new mine in northern Canada which isn't expected to go into production until 2012 but now might be fast-tracked.)
To make matters more uncertain, the USA and the rest of the world buys 90-95% of their rare earth metals from China, who just threatened a potential export ban or severe restrictions....and all high technology manufacturers around the globe are in a panic.
Afganistan, the USA and Canada could become new sources if China bans exports of rare earth metal and rare metals by 2015.
According to the NYT:
"A copy of the draft rules, said China would further reduce its combined annual export quotas for all rare-earth elements to 35,000 tons a year, from 53,000 tons last year and almost 66,000 tons as recently as 2005." The draft policy also clearly stated that exports of dysprosium and terbium were to be prohibited along with exports of three other rare-earth elements: thulium, lutetium and yttrium. By cutting exports, as well as putting a total tax of 42 percent on exports of dysprosium, terbium and some of the other rare-earth elements, Beijing officials have successfully required manufacturers of advanced magnets, motors and other technologies to move their factories to China, where the minerals are readily available."
While researching shortage opportunties for my new book on Opportunties, I ran across a report on Minerals in Afghanistan posted on the British Geologic Survey
It outlines the following:
"In Afghanistan rare metals (lithium, caesium, tantalum and niobium) occur in three main deposit types: pegmatites, mineralised springs and playa-lake sediments"
"Globally, rare metals are produced from deposits in these three settings, chiefly in Chile, Argentina, the USA and Turkey. ..[also China & in the future-Canada--Walter Derzko]
Lithium has many uses, for example in batteries, in the glass and ceramics industry, and in high performance alloys for aircraft. Most tantalum is used to produce capacitors that are used in laptop computers, mobile phones and digital cameras. Niobium is primarily used in specialist steels although it also shares some uses with tantalum since it has almost identical chemical properties.
Conclusions and potential
Afghanistan has considerable resources of rare metals in pegmatites, mineralised springs and lake-sediment salts. No systematic modern exploration has been carried out since the withdrawal of Soviet forces and many of the known localities warrant further investigation and exploration based on modern mineral deposit models and techniques."