Mining, Rare Earths, And Osama Bin Laden
Commentary by Harold Hough
It was great moment when US Navy SEALS dispatched Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, nearly a decade after 9/11. Although it doesn’t mean the War on Terror is over, at least one of its major players sleeps with the fishes today. We owe a debt of gratitude to our Special Forces, who operate in secrecy and do the jobs that would normally be considered impossible.
However, our SEALS would have been hard pressed to carry out this mission if it wasn’t for the stealth helicopters that took them to the target and carried them (and Bin Laden’s lifeless body) back to safety. And, for that, mining and rare earths should take a bow.
Unlike bombers and fighters, stealth helicopters present special problems. Radar absorbing materials and radar cross section mean less, since helicopters fly close to the earth. Instead, masking the noise of a helicopter is the major problem.
Reducing helicopter noise isn’t a new science. Aerospace engineers know that redesigning rotor blades and tips, in addition to increasing the number of blades can significantly reduce the percussive thump we all recognize as the signature of a helicopter.
However, that isn’t enough, so stealth engineers have put a new technology into the stealth mix – white noise generators. Like the ones you can buy for your home, they mask and cancel out distracting noises. But what the Department of Defense uses for their stealth helicopters puts the home ones to shame.
Not only can these super-sized noise generators, hidden behind domes on the helicopter, help cancel out the blade noises of a helicopter, they can play a few other tricks on listeners. As anyone who has listened to a train move towards them and then away, the frequency of the noise can help a listener tell if an object is moving towards or away from them. This is known as the Doppler Shift.
Stealth helicopters use this principle to play games on your ears. They can change frequencies so it appears that a helicopter moving towards you sounds like it is moving away from you. Combined with low radar cross section and low infrared signature, these helicopters can truly confuse an enemy.
This is where rare earths come into play. There is only one magnet that is powerful enough and able to withstand the heat enough to carry this out – Samarium/Cobalt Magnets. They can withstand temperatures of 700 degrees Celsius without losing their magnetic properties. Neodymium magnets, which are more powerful, would fail in such heavy use.
The good news is that the US is the second largest producer of samarium, with a production of 5,000 tons. Unfortunately, China produces 120,000 tons.
In addition to its use in stealth helicopters, Rare Earth Elements (REEs) have an important role in the defense industry. Rare earth elements are used in lasers, radar, missile-guidance systems, satellites and aircraft electronics. And many military systems also rely upon commercial computer hard drives that use rare earth magnets. Specific examples of rare earth-driven technologies include the navigation system for the M-1 Abrams battle tank, and the electric drive for the Navy's DDG-51 destroyers. The GAO report states, "Defense systems will likely continue to depend on rare earth materials, based on their life cycles and lack of effective substitutes."
Fortunately the US has realized the importance of Rare Earths. The Mountain Pass Mine, once the largest REE mine in the world began limited operations last year and is scheduled to produce 4,000 toms of REEs this year. This alone will reduce our foreign reliance on REES by 40%.
Meanwhile, the Pea Ridge operation in Missouri will be producing the samarium used in stealth white noise machines. At the same time, exploration companies are looking at potential REE reserves near Gunnison, CO.
Although the US allowed China to gain leadership in REE production decades ago, it appears that we have realized the error of our ways before it was too late. One can only hope that future enemies of America will meet their demise with American mined Rare Earth technology.