US mineral dependence doubted
By David Jedlinsky
Joel Clark, associate professor of materials systems at MIT, led a workshop entitled "The Myth of South Africa's Strategic Minerals" Wednesday night at Senior House. He questioned the United States' dependence on South Africa's minerals.
Although South Africa produces almost 30 percent of the world's supply of chromium and manganese, the United States would not be hurt by an embargo imposed by the South African government, Clark said.
Clark built hypothetical models of the supply and demand of the market for strategic minerals. According to these models, if an embargo cuts off the supply, that "consumption would go down and new sources would come on line."
"Strategic" minerals are those needed for national de-<>
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fense, Clark said. Chromium and manganese are two such minerals, used in making high temperature metal alloys and stainless steel.
Opponents to Clark's assessment of the importance of South Africa's minerals point to market studies which show that the current supply of strategic minerals is being completely consumed. They argue that an embargo would hurt the economy as well as the defense industry.
Clark countered these claims by exploring the effect on demand as supply declines. Chromium, for example, could be substituted by other elements. Such methods would take a few years to be developed.
Substitutions would increase as the price increased. Case histories can be used to support this, he said. "There would be no substitution in the area of high temperature alloys, but this application accounts for only about three percent of the total use of chromium."
The United States has enough minerals stockpiled to satisfy demand for up to about three years, Clark claimed. "This will get us over any short-term problems."
Mining of "nodules," deposits of minerals found on the ocean floor, would not greatly affect the price, he said. "The cost of recovering the metals contained in the nodules would be too high, compared to the price of the minerals. The price would have to more than double in order to make it feasible."
Some South African officials threatened the United States with an embargo if the Reagan Administration imposed economic sanctions against their government. The United States should not take these threats seriously, Clark said. "Embargos don't work if something is sold on the world market."
During the 1978 cobalt crisis in Zaire, for example, rebels shut down and flooded the cobalt mines, disrupting the main supply of cobalt to the United States, he explained. When the price rose from about five dollars to fifty dollars, companies made substitutions which have remained permanent until now.