Minerals; Breaking the import habit
Although they enjoy a glut of gasoline at the moment, US motorists know their fuel supply depends on the uncertainties of imported oil. But few of them give much thought to the platinum catalyst on which their car's smog control system depends. Yet imports meet a higher percentage of the need for this critical material than is the case with oil.Skip to next paragraph
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The US imports 87 percent of the platinum-group metals it uses, with much of it coming from just two countries - South Africa (53 percent) and the USSR (22 percent). These metals - platinum, palladium, and iridium - are used widely in chemical and oil refining industries, as well as in automobile catalytic converters. In the case of manganese, which is essential for making steel and hence automobile bodies, imports account for 97 percent of US requirements.
Indeed, US dependence on imported strategic raw materials - resources essential to its industry and defense - is as much a continuing threat to the US economy and national security as is reliance on imported oil. Yet this has aroused nowhere near a comparable degree of public concern.
''It is a problem. But it doesn't cause waiting lines at the gas pump,'' observes Walter B. Moen, executive director of the Federation of Materials Societies (FMS). However, more than half a million scientists, engineers, and technical managers whose professional societies make up the federation are deeply concerned. In a statement issued on their behalf, the federation has pointed out:
''The United States depends heavily on foreign imports of more than . . . 90 percent of our total annual requirements of columbium, manganese, chromium, cobalt, bauxite (for aluminum) and platinum metals; between 75 percent and 90 percent of our requirements for tin and nickel; and between 50 percent and 75 percent of our requirements for zinc, antimony, tungsten and cadmium.''
The statement adds: ''A highly industrialized and technologically advanced nation such as the United States uses thousands to millions of tons of each of the forementioned metals and minerals, in addition to huge amounts of domestically available iron, copper, and lead. Significant perturbations in the availability and prices of these materials can have grave effects upon the national security, employment, and industrial health of the nation. . . .
''The technical organizations representing the materials community are convinced that an effective national materials policy is required to assure the United States of the continued availability of essential materials without disruption of the economy.''
This strong statement was issued in October 1980. The ''materials community'' is still waiting for such a national policy to emerge. So, too, is the US Congress, which made a similar statement in 1980 in a law that, among other things, required the executive branch to come up with such a policy in a report that was due last October. The Reagan administration missed that deadline. At this writing, it still had not submitted the report, although it was believed almost ready to do so.
In any evenD, while the report may outline an administration policy, it is unlikely to settle the vexing question of what the US should do about its raw material supply. Like the issue of meeting US energy needs, this involves a host of conflicting interests.
Secretary of the Interior James Watt says, ''The best answer to minerals availability is domestic production.'' Environmental groups leap to defend wilderness areas from mining encroachment. The mining industry says it is discouraged by environmental regulations, such as the Clean Air Act which has been hard on smelters, and by the unpredictability of federal policies. It wants new subsidies and tax breaks if it is to take advantage of any lands Mr. Watt might open up.
Technical groups such as FMS, seeing a need to develop alternative materials, urge funding more materials research at universities and educating more materials scientists and engineers. Yet the Reagan administration is reducing such funding, especially for the equipment that universities need to teach materials science. For its part, the administration is respondin' to pleas to build up the national stockpile of strategic raw materials. Yet when it anNounced it would sell silver, not now needed in th% stockpile, to buy more cobalt, a top priority mineral, it was criticized by t(oe using minerals for upsetting the minerals market, and the need for having more cobalt on hand was questioned.