Chromium, bauxite, manganese -- the next big crunch

If you've been concerned about OPEC and the "oil shortage," watch out. An even larger challenge looms with raw materials. Although this has long been forecast, the Federation of Materials Societies (FMS) has issued a major policy statement to warn that a national materials policy now "is vitally needed" if recurrent shortages are not suddenly to turn into a crisis.

The situation is reminiscent of oil supply in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Experts knew it was critical. But the rest of the US population failed to perceive this.

Today, the situation with raw materials may be even more serious. Unlike oil , which is only one form of energy supply, there are no substitutes for some of these materials. Iron and steel can't be made economically without manganese, nor can stainless steel be made without chromium.

Yet for these and many other essential materials, the United States now depends on imports to meet 50 to 100 percent of its needs. And, FMS warns, that dependence grows yearly. To be more specific, its statement notes that the United States imports "more than 90 percent of our total annual requirements of columbium, manganese, chromium, cobalt, bauxite (for aluminum), and platinum metals; between 75% and 90% of our requirements for tin and nickel; and between 50% and 75% of our requirements for zinc, antimony, tungsten, and cadmium."

Added to this is the fact that many of these materials come from areas marked by political instability and growing local nationalism, FMS points out. All the ingredients for an "OPEC crunch" in materials now exist.

To cite just one example, electronics manufacturing -- a key industry in the US high technology economy -- already suffers serious materials shortages. H. W. Hutchinson, who recently retired as director for government procurement at RCA, warned his company as he left that: "By late 1981, and surely by 1982, we are going to be facing extreme difficulties in getting all the materials we need , when we need them, and at prices we can afford."

What, then, is to be done? FMS thinks a national materials policy should include such measures as extending and filling national stockpiles, developing substitutes where possible, strengthening materials research, making products more durable, and promoting conservation and the recovery and recycling of industrial and municipal wastes. Also, FMS urges active federal support for ocean mining, which could be a rich source of some critical materials.

All of these measures would need substantial federal support and encouragement, including support for education in materials science and engineering. It is hard to foresee how these suggestions would fit the new administration's plans. Budget cuts have disallowed funds to encourage engineering education. But funds for materials research have been spared.

One thing is clear. If nothing is done, as was the case with oil, the coming ma terials crunch will force the issue.

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