Advanced technology can demand some advanced materials, commonly referred to as rare earth elements. The problem is right in the name: they're rare. America may not be in a lurch just yet, but these elements won't last forever. Turns out there's another place to find them: the Moon.
Now, we don't know how concentrated deposits of rare earth elements (or REEs) are, but we do know that the Moon has traces of REEs such as europium and tantalum, which are used in everything from electronics to advanced weaponry.
A recent study by a Congressional review body found that "China supplies most of the rare earth minerals found in technologies such as hybrid cars, wind turbines, computer hard drives and cell phones, but the U.S. has its own largely untapped reserves that could safeguard future tech innovation." That's good news, because the report also states that "China has warned that its own industrial demands could compel it to stop exporting rare earths within the next five or 10 years." Japan is already feeling the heat from such a proposition after a stop on exports by China.
The bad news? It takes infrastructure to process these minerals, and that infrastructure is not only not in place in America, but it'd be expensive for it to be developed — something that's keeping companies from jumping in first. That, and it's not like those reserves will last forever.
A country that runs out of REEs on Earth — and can't rely on trade to supply its needs — may then have to turn to the Moon for more.
"It seems that there is significant quantity of REE's in North America, [it's] just not profitable to refine them yet," Dale Boucher, a director at the Canada-based Northern Center for Advanced Technology company told Space.com. "What value is the strategic element in this? Can one put a price on this? If so, it may be economically viable to explore the moon and extract the REEs."
Of course, this may be more a problem for our kids rather than ourselves. 100 years from now, maybe they'll be mind-blogging from their private space-homes about how they could mine asteroids now that the Moon is all tapped out.