One of the strangest enigmas of WWII was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For over two hours on the sunny morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japanese planes dropped bombs on as many warships as possible in the Hawaiian port of Pearl Harbor. By the end of it all, nearly the entire Pacific Fleet of the US lay crippled or sunk. Thousands were killed either as a result of the attacking planes, or as a result of those ships that sunk.
But there was one strategic area that saw no devastation that day. While the relentless Japanese assault on the warships in the harbor that day produced horrific results for the US Pacific Fleet, other major areas of vulnerability for the US remained untouched and unaffected. None of the over two dozen fuel depots received any damage at all. Even the only oil tanker in harbor that day, the USS Nehosho, went completely unscathed.
As the chief commander of the Pacific fleet, Admiral Nimitz, later admitted, "Had the Japanese destroyed the oil, [they] would have prolonged the war another two years."
Although the eventual outcome may not have changed, the end date of the war may have been altered substantially.
From the earliest days of the 20 th Century, with Henry Ford starting to mass produce his Model As and Ts and Calvin Coolidge promising "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot," Americans understood the fundamental need that oil would fill for the foreseeable future. And during the second world war, Americans were seen across the Middle East and beyond, wining and dining the Iranians and the Saudis, as well as other emirs of the region, with promises of paradise and endless riches if they would just sign up with the US and tow the line.
When Nixon took the dollar off of the gold standard in 1971, he made certain that OPEC would only sell their oil in dollars by 1973. Thus was born the "Petro-dollar." It went unchallenged until 2000, when a sorry and broken leader decided to sell some of his oil in Euros in 2000. His name? """. Saddam Hussein, and we all know what happened to him. And the funniest part of this story (if there really is one) was that the US bought almost all of this oil with euros!!!
At the dawn of the 21 st Century, the fight over oil is growing tired and grim. The uses for oil have run their gambit and though it would be hard for anyone to imagine a world without the splendor of unleaded gas fueling their car, or plastic parts forming their computers, there are already cheaper alternatives on the horizon and more awareness of the downside to all this petro-pollution destroying our planet.
Enter rare earth elements, REE. Where oil can be found almost everywhere and only man's overaggressive lust for the product has had an impact on its abundance, rare earth elements were believed to be, well, rather rare. Even the periodic table of elements points to them almost as an aside to the rest of the elements. They are there because science says they have to be there to fill some electron grouping of some kind.
But they do indeed exist. Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium not only exist, they are becoming more and more needed. Whether in cars, computers, scientific instruments, medicine, photography, or just about anywhere else modern technology turns, it has become apparent that researchers need rare earth elements to reach the next milestone. Cell phones, cameras, listening devices, airplanes, transmission equipment and much more now rely on REE more than ever before. And the dependence is only growing.
But wait, there's more.
China owns 95% of all known REEs in the world. That is not a typo. China OWNS them. China controls them. And their usage is growing so fast that soon, China will turn (much like the US in the 1960s) from a net exporter to a net importer. Yes! China, with 95% of all the REEs in the world, will soon be looking to other countries to satisfy its demand for them.
That means that the rest of the entire world, the US, UK, Europe, Russia, South America, Africa and elsewhere, will be battling China over the 5% that China DOESN'T own!!! Talk about a monopoly. China is the REE capital of the world, lock, stock and barrel. And their appetite, much like the US of the 20 th Century, will only grow over time.
In 1912, the US clearly understood the importance of oil and oil products for the future of mankind. By the 1930s, many of DuPont's best engineers had discovered incredible properties for the polymers produced from oil. Perhaps there was a "new" market out there for such strange gunk. And indeed, there was. As Dustin Hoffman's character was counseled upon graduation in the 60s movie, The Graduate, "Think plastics!"
Today, it is hard to think of a product that DOESN'T have some connection with plastics, something that is less than 100 years old. Where will REEs be 100 years from now? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain, China will be the leader and the world will follow their tune. REEs are among the most expensive, most innovative and most far reaching of any group of products on the planet. Where oil is being replaced as quickly as possible, REEs are just now giving birth to the products, the processes and the promise that will become the hallmark of this century.