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.
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