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Afghanistan's Buried Riches - Rare Earths & More

Afghanistan's Promise as a Global Mining Center - RF Cafe SmorgasbordHave you heard about this? I hadn't. If you think the only goal in Afghanistan is to stamp out the Taliban, think again. An article in the October 2011 issue of Scientific American details the extensive mineral surveys that have been carried out there in the last year or so. Afghanistan is home to what may be the largest cache of rare earth elements in the world, with a potential to replace China as the largest extractor (~90%) of those atoms that lie in the lanthanide and actinide regions of the periodic table - the two rows that are typically pulled out of the chart. China, you may have heard, is severely restricting the export of rare earths - wanting to keep it for themselves - thereby triggering a near panic. Prices are rising so alarmingly that reopening mines1 in the U.S. has once again become profitable in spite of the crippling regulations that years ago closed down operations here (huge loss of jobs and tax revenue) and forced us to become reliant on offshore supplies - just like what is happening today with oil and gas, BTW.

There are a lot more than rare earth elements available, though. According to a map2 published with the article, there are equally large reserves of copper, lithium, tin, lead, zinc, gold, silver, tungsten, mercury, iron, emeralds, talc, gypsum and much more. An estimated worth of hundreds of billions of dollars - maybe a trillion or more - of extractable wealth is available just in the stashes identified so far. Teams of scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have been surveying the Afghanistan countryside under the protection of U.S. military troops6 and CIA operatives. The Taliban has a huge interest in protecting the poppy fields in Afghanistan, where a significant portion of their funding originates - to supplement the money provided3 by some of our "allies" like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Persian Gulf nations. The official line is that we hope to eventually supplant the farmers' current profits from the opium trade with royalties paid by mining operations. Of course, what we are most likely to get, if anything at all, is both.

If you are one of those people who said the whole reason for attacking Iraq was for oil profits, you will probably say the same about our presence in Afghanistan, only this time for real gold rather than black gold. If you are, then the fact that we have not received one drop of free oil from Iraq will probably not affect your belief about our likelihood of profiting off of Afghanistan. The fact is that just as the American taxpayer has funded untold billions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art power generation and transmission systems, schools, hospitals, daycare centers, roads, colleges, computers, medicine, cars and trucks, cellphones and towers, radios and televisions, toys and games, clothing, guns and ammunition, military gear, training for police, firefighters, teachers, medical personnel, and the list goes on, we have been doing the same thing in Afghanistan. Oh incidentally, we have paid for the same things in Kuwait, African countries, and elsewhere. Come to think of it, America did a lot of that for Europe after World War II4. But I digress.

Are you surprised to learn that some of our soldiers have died to protect surveying efforts in Afghanistan? Well, here comes the real rub. Many multinational investors have begun staking claims all over the country for mining rights once the region is deemed safe enough to commence operations. One of the largest players is China Metallurgical Group with pending leases on a copper deposit with an estimate in value of at least $43B. Hmmm... funny that I could not find any references to China helping to fund the military operations in Afghanistan. In fact, when I do a search about China's involvement there, all I could find was information about how they have been abetting the resistance forces. Didn't China assist the forces in both North Vietnam and in North Korea? Yeah, I thought so. But hey, enjoy your cheap electronics and tools, and clothes, and toys, and furniture, and well, just about everything else. Didn't America assist China in its defense against the southern Japan invasion during World War II5? Yeah, I thought so. Dang, I digressed again.

U.S-Built Electric Grid in Afghanistan, October 2011 Spectrum - RF Cafe SmorgasbordIEEE's October 2011 edition of Spectrum magazine also happened to run an article titled, "Re-Engineering Afghanistan: At What Cost?," reporting on our electrical power infrastructure work in Afghanistan. Trillion-dollar "Stimulus" packages are authorized here at home ostensibly to fund our own infrastructure projects - roads, bridges, dams, etc. - but the money has disappeared into a black hole and nobody seems to know where it went (of course it went to fund certain states' bloated employee pensions and immorally mismanaged budgets); meanwhile we also spend billions of our tax dollars in yet another country whose vast majority of the population wants to cut our throats - literally. Yes, our troops have died defending the power grid, too.

Is anybody else tired of this? Our money and technical know-how builds the world while here at home we suffer record high unemployment and industry is dying at an ever-increasingly fast pace. Politicians are responsible for creating the laws and whacko regulations that have doomed America, yet the same ones are voted back into office cycle after cycle. A conspiracist might conclude it has all been intentional, because the only other explanation is gross incompetence on the part of government. If our Afghanistan experience turns out like Iraq has turned out, then don't count on getting any kind of return on your hard-earned tax money from the "investment" we have put into the place.

Access to the full Scientific American article is restricted to digital subscribers (I subscribe to the tree-killing version), so the accompanying charts and tables that break down various countries' share of the rear earth metals, quantities imported versus quantities produced domestically, etc., are not readily available to most people. Below is a small sampling of the data presented.

Ironically, this headline was just posted today:  China Rare Earths Supplier Suspends Production

Percent of Metals Imported Into the United States

Sums of percentages imported from other countries = 100%
Total Amount Imported by U.S. is a separate number

PlatinumS. Africa21%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.94%
S. Africa21%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.58%
Rare EarthsChina92%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.100%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.100%
ManganeseS. Africa35%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.100%
Total Amount Imported by U.S.100%

Common Uses for Elements
Discovered in Afghanistan

Platinum Group Metals
PlatinumCatalytic converters, electronics, chemical processing
PalladiumCatalytic converters, capacitors, CO sensors
RhodiumCatalytic converters, chemical processing
RutheniumElectronic contacts, resistors, superalloys
IridiumSpark plugs, alloys, chemical processing
OsmiumElectronic contacts, electron microscopy, surgical implants
Rare Earth Elements
ScandiumAerospace components, aluminum alloys
YttriumLasers, TV & computer displays, microwave filters
LanthanumOil refining, hybrid-car batteries, camera lenses
CeriumCatalytic converters, oil refining, glass lenses
PraesodymiumAircraft engines, carbon arc lights
NeodymiumComputer hard drives, cell phones, high-power magnets
PromethiumPortable x-ray machines, nuclear batteries
SamariumHigh-power magnets, ethanol, PCB cleansers
EuropiumTV & computer displays, lasers, optical electronics
GadoliniumCancer therapy, MRI contrast agent
TerbiumSolid-state electronics, sonar systems
DysprosiumLasers, nuclear-reactor control rods
HolmiumHigh-power magnets, lasers
ErbiumFiber optics, nuclear-reactor control rods
ThuliumX-ray machines, superconductors
YtterbiumPortable x-ray machines, lasers
LutetiumChemical processing, LED bulbs
Other Critical Minerals
IndiumLCDs, semiconductors, solar thin films
ManganeseIron & steel production, aluminum alloys
NiobiumSteel production, aerospace alloys
1Rare Earth Mining in the United States Gets a Second Chance
2:  The SciAm website does not have the large map shown in the thumbnail, but it is on Nature's website.
3Financers of the Taliban
4Marshall Plan
5China Defensive 
6Slideshow of U.S. troops protecting USGS scientists


See also Toxic Air from China, The Real Price of Gold, Afghanistan's Buried Riches - Rare Earths & More, E-Waste... Just Don't Think About It

RF Cafe University"Factoids," "Kirt's Cogitations," and "Tech Topics Smorgasbord" are all manifestations of my rantings on various subjects relevant (usually) to the overall RF Cafe theme. All may be accessed on these pages:

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Posted October 20, 2011

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