LBNL, Dysprosium, and the new course of empire

What is dysprosium and why are the scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory devoting so much attention to it?

And what does it have to do with President Barack Obama’s decision to shift the focus of America’s military might to the Pacific?

And what might it have to do with a shadowing, self-appointed scientific elite called the JASONs, all armed with high-level security briefings and designated to advice the Pentagon about matters deemed of critical strategic importance?

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab [henceforth, LBNL], describes itself this way:

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The Department of Energy wasn’t always the Department of Energy. Once upon a time, it was called the Atomic Energy Commission, and it was the direct fruit of the Manhattan Project, the World War II crash program created to design and build the world’s first nuclear weapons.

The project was run by two men, Gen. Leslie Groves — who also built the Pentagon — and Robert Oppenheimer, a UC Berkeley physicist who brought many of his Cal colleagues on board for a trip to a former boy’s school outside Santa Fe on a remote mesa called Los Alamos.

Los Alamos remains one of Berkeley’s national labs, along with Lawrence Livermore and LBNL, with the first two conducting super secret research developing the latest generation of nukes, including the bunker busters the U.S. just might deploy against Iran’s underground nuclear program.

While in theory LBNL is the peaceful member of the UC Berkeley national lab trio, some of it’s key staff, inc luding lab director and Paul Alvisatos, are members of the JASONs, that secretive self-appointing body created in 1960 at the height of the Cold War to provide the Pentagon the best advice money can buy. Another notable member is Steve Koonin, the scientist brought to Cal by BP to run the corporate side of the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, where gene tweakers are designing bacteria to turn crops into fuel — a project that’s also very dear to the heart of the Pentagon.

Recall that when LBNL held an international forum on carbon standards back in May 2007, recently retired four star Air Force General Charles F. Wald sat at the head table with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-LBNL Director and Nobel Laureate Steve Chu, now Barack Obama’s Secretary of Energy.

It was at that forum Wald declared:

With “our national security dramatically influenced by the demand for oil,” Wald said, the best solution is development of alternative fuels.

And it was Wald, in his previous position with the Air Force, who had created the military’s agrofuel program and played the lead role in the creation of Africom, the military command formed to give the U.S. military hegemony of the continent targeted for growing fuel crops by the LBNL-backed, BP-funded — to the tune of $500 million — UC Berkeley-based Energy Biosciences Institute.

Starting to see a pattern here?

Which brings us back to dysprosium

Let’s take a look at the headline on a 12 January report from Julie Chao of LBNL’s News Center:

Berkeley Lab Seeks to Help U.S. Assert Scientific Leadership in Critical Materials
Broad scientific approach to studying rare earth materials needed to ensure continued deployment of clean energy technologies.

Some key excerpts from the article:

A few short decades ago, few could have imagined that the world would be seriously concerned over something called dysprosium. Also known as number 66 on the periodic table, dysprosium was once just another element for chemistry students to memorize but is now one of the most sought-after and critically needed materials on the planet.

Belonging to a family of elements known as lanthanides—also called rare earths—dysprosium and other rare earths are used in almost every high-tech gadget and clean energy technology invented in the last 30 years, from smart phones to wind turbines to hybrid cars. Although the United States was self-sufficient in rare earths or obtained them on the free market until the early 2000s, the vast majority are now mined in China and the supply has been subject to fluctuations. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) aims to change the status quo by reviving the study of these critical materials to better understand how to extract them, use them more efficiently, reuse and recycle them and find substitutes for them.

In its 2011 Critical Material Strategy released last month, the DOE said that “supply challenges for five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium) may affect clean energy technology deployment in the years ahead.” It also recommended enhanced training of scientists and engineers to “address vulnerabilities and realize opportunities related to critical materials.”

“If we are going to achieve what we need to do in terms of managing climate change, we absolutely have to fix the materials problem—it’s the linchpin for clean energy technologies,” said Frances Houle, a Berkeley Lab scientist who is Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Chemical Sciences Division. “Because Berkeley Lab is such a broad institution, many of the pieces required are already here. We have the chemistry, the earth science, the materials science, the theory. Not very many institutions can say that.”

Like coal and gold, the rare earths are mined out of the ground. However, in any given ore, they are mixed together with other rare earths. So although they are not actually rare, they are difficult to mine. “They’re in low concentration, and it’s very hard to mine them and separate them out, so it’s challenging and extremely energy-intensive to produce rare earth materials ready for industrial manufacturers; it requires a lot of electricity, water and chemicals,” said Berkeley Lab Senior Scientist David Shuh. “This area of study has been ignored over the last two decades, largely due to insufficient research and development support.”


The Chemical Sciences Division of Berkeley Lab is world renowned in the study of actinides, a close neighbor of the lanthanides (rare earths) and which bear some chemical similarities. One goal of Shuh’s project is to improve understanding of their fundamental interactions by coupling theory to spectroscopic results, paving the way for the design of more efficient element-specific separations and development of new applications in fields such as lighting and biotechnology.

Complementing this approach, Berkeley Lab’s Materials Science Division will focus on basic research into understanding the properties of materials to come up with new alternatives that mimic those properties. “For example, certain wind turbines and motors rely on neodymium magnets. A better microscopic understanding may point toward new replacement materials containing elements that are more environmentally friendly or abundant,” said Jeff Neaton, deputy director of the division. “It may be that replacements draw on a combination of materials, a composite or assembly, or reduced dimensionality, as in nanostructures.”

Neaton added that recent advances in nanoscience, which allows researchers to synthesize and control materials at the level of atoms and molecules and a few tens of nanometers, has potential to play a large role in the process. Also, new nanoscale characterization tools and theory could bring breakthroughs in understanding that will be important in guiding the search for replacement materials.

Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division has deep experience in the modeling of subsurface chemical processes and in geochemical analysis of mineral surface structure and pore chemistry, expertise that will be useful in studying new ways to recover rare earth elements. Another approach would take advantage of “-omics” methods (which includes genomics and proteomics) to identify microorganisms that could aid in releasing rare earths from minerals.

At the other end of the process but encompassing the overall use of rare earth materials, researchers Jim McMahon and Eric Masanet of Berkeley Lab’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division specialize in analyzing industrial processes and quantifying the environmental and energy implications. Their lifecycle analysis of critical materials will focus on how to reuse and recycle them in efficient and environmentally acceptable ways.

Currently, the rare earth elements in computers, smart phones and other electronic gadgets are often either thrown away or sent abroad to be recovered—typically using low-cost labor and environmentally hazardous means. Today’s cell phones use 40 different elements; a Toyota Prius contains approximately 30 pounds of rare earth material.

Read the rest.

Fine, so we need dysprosium for our Priuses, wind turbines, and the like. But is it also critical to the Pentagon’s vision of the future, and if so, just how critical? Consider this report from Jack Lifton, co-founder of Technology Metals Research, LLC:

And let’s consider two Department of Energy graphics from Chao’s report.

The upper image “shows the supply risk and importance to clean energy of certain elements in the short term (present-2015). The [lower] matrix shows the medium term (2015-2025).”

Note, in particular, the place of dysprosium in the right-hand chart, that metal with a military role so critical that it’s classified.

Now add a little more information to the stew

First, consider a story dated 2 February from

Inner Mongolia Baotou Steel Rare-Earth (Group) Hi-Tech Co Ltd, the biggest rare earth producer in China, yesterday announced that its net profit for 2011 might have surged by over three folds from RMB 751 million in 2010.

The Shanghai-listed firm attributed the profit jump to increased rare earth prices, which were boosted by the Chinese government’s stimulus package in rare earth industry.

According to statistics, the average price of dysprosium-iron alloy, one kind of rare earth, increased from RMB 1.45 million per ton in January 4, 2011 to RMB 12.3 million per ton in August 30, 2011, representing a jump of over seven folds.

China owns 33% of the global rare earth reserves, while the company’s rare earth reserves account for 83% of the total in China, said analysts, adding that the Inner Mongolia-based firm currently has an annual rare earth output capacity of 60,000 tons.

The combined output capacity of rare earth totals around 100,000 tons in China, accounting for 97% of the total worldwide, sources reported.

Read the rest.

Note that price increase? The cost of dysprosium soared 848 percent!

And note one more factor, not mentioned in Chao’s story but cited in the metal’s Wikipedia entry:

Dysprosium is used for its high thermal neutron absorption cross-section in making control rods in nuclear reactors.

Hmmmm. . .

Now add in another factor, from Element Investing:

More than 90% of the global supply of dysprosium comes from China. Dependence on Chinese exports is expected to lead to a critical shortage of the element between 2012 and 2014. New mines are scheduled to come online in the medium term that could mitigate this constriction. China has instituted significant export quotas and tariffs on all REEs based on resource conservation and environmental regulatory reasons, though new mines in Australia, Canada and the United States will provide little additional supply and are subject to strict permitting processes and environmental regulations, which have the potential to delay production.

Now throw in another item, from Keith Bradsher of the New York Times:

The world’s largest refinery for rare earth metals has risen out of the red mud of a coastal swamp here and could soon obtain permission to operate — a step that would help break China’s near monopoly on rare earths but also worsen an emerging glut of some of these strategic minerals.

China’s suspension of exports of rare earths to Japan during a territorial dispute in 2010 fed a bubble in the market that drove prices up 30-fold by last summer. But prices have slumped by up to three-fifths since then for some of the 17 rare earth elements, which are vital to smartphones, wind turbines and other components of the modern economy. The approaching completion of the Malaysian refinery, with the capacity to meet a fifth of the world’s demand, has contributed to the plunge.

The progress toward opening the plant has occurred despite street demonstrations here over radiation worries, regulatory challenges and the withdrawal of a major equipment supplier worried about the safety of the refinery, which is being built by Lynas, an Australian company.

Raja Dato Abdul Aziz bin Raja Adnan, the director general of the Malaysian Atomic Energy Licensing Board, said by telephone Monday evening that the board had discussed at a closed-door meeting earlier in the day whether to grant an initial operating license of up to two years for the refinery, which is a series of more than a dozen sprawling buildings connected by a labyrinth of pipes. He declined to say what the board had decided, but added that an announcement would be made “sooner rather than later.”

Raja Adnan had said in a phone interview last week that his personal view was that it would be useful to issue the license and then carefully monitor radiation levels at the refinery and in its waste, because he did not trust pilot-scale models designed to predict how the refinery would operate.

Read the rest.

And note that among those Australian rare earths is — you guessed it — dysprosium [and here and here (PDF)].

Now add in a BBC story from last July:

Japanese researchers say they have discovered vast deposits of rare earth minerals, used in many hi-tech appliances, in the seabed.

The geologists estimate that there are about a 100bn tons of the rare elements in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor.

At present, China produces 97% of the world’s rare earth metals.

Analysts say the Pacific discovery could challenge China’s dominance, if recovering the minerals from the seabed proves commercially viable.

The British journal Nature Geoscience reported that a team of scientists led by Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo, found the minerals in sea mud at 78 locations.

“The deposits have a heavy concentration of rare earths. Just one square kilometre (0.4 square mile) of deposits will be able to provide one-fifth of the current global annual consumption,” said Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo.

Read the rest.

Then add in this paragraph from the United States Geological Survey’s “Preliminary Assessment of Non-Fuel Mineral Resources of Afghanistan, 2007” [PDF]:

Rare-earth elements (REE) and uranium are present in Helmand Province, associated with a carbonatite body. Estimates of undiscovered deposits resulted in a mean expected value of 1.4 million metric tons of REE and 3.48 million metric tons of niobium. Important amounts of phosphorous, uranium, thorium, barite, fluorspar, and nepheline could also be associated with such deposits.

The Great Game, rare earth division?

Notice a common denominator to all these rare earth locations?

They’re all on an in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

And in that context consider an 18 November Jackie Calmes story from the New York Times:

President Obama announced Wednesday that the United States planned to deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia to shore up alliances in Asia, but the move prompted a sharp response from Beijing, which accused Mr. Obama of escalating military tensions in the region.

Addressing the Australian Parliament in Canberra on Thursday, President Obama promised a long-term American role in Asia.

Darwin will be the center for the deployment of Marines.

The agreement with Australia amounts to the first long-term expansion of the American military’s presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War. It comes despite budget cuts facing the Pentagon and an increasingly worried reaction from Chinese leaders, who have argued that the United States is seeking to encircle China militarily and economically.

“It may not be quite appropriate to intensify and expand military alliances and may not be in the interest of countries within this region,” Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in response to the announcement by Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia.

In an address to the Australian Parliament on Thursday morning, Mr. Obama said he had “made a deliberate and strategic decision — as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.”

Read the rest.

Begin to see a pattern here?

And once again, just as in World War II when Japan challenged Britain and the United States for hegemony over critical resources in the Pacific, a new battle of resources is shaping up, and once again, Berkeley is in the thick of it.

And for our earlier look at Obama’s new Pacific policy, see here.


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