Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Metals attune industry to third world. US need for scarce elements raises sensitivity to needs abroad

The machine operator watches a freshly made automobile valve rumble into position. With the press of a button, sparks fly; he puts a cobalt-alloy coating on the part, which topples into a box. The roar of metal on metal in this TRW Inc. plant in suburban Cleveland is a sound straight out of Mid-America's manufacturing region. But the cobalt, more often than not, is from Zaire and other developing countries.

Although Americans think of their country as a land of abundance, third-world raw materials keep United States industries humming. Many of those industries are critical to national security.

About these ads

The US simply does not have domestic reserves of some minerals, for example strontium, which is used to block X-rays in TV screens. Limited domestic mining of cobalt, among many other minerals, is possible, says Timothy Stanley, chairman of the International Economic Policy Association, but ``costs would be prohibitive.''

The need to maintain reliable supplies of key raw materials has forced businesses and political leaders to become more sensitive to third-world developments, particularly since the Soviet Union is the key alternative supplier for many minerals.

The US imports more than 90 percent of its cobalt, tantalum, chromium, columbium, and platinum group metals, says Arden L. Bement Jr., one of several senior executives at TRW's corporate headquarters in Lyndhurst, Ohio, who closely follow raw material imports.

TRW's sprawling family of manufacturing facilities makes wide use of these five minerals in superalloys: tool plants in Rogers, Ark., and Augusta, Ga., use tantalum and columbium; a third in Boone, N.C., uses platinum-group metals to make electric resistors.

Just down the road from here, in Euclid, TRW uses chromium to produce control rod drives for submarines' nuclear reactors and jet engine turbine blades. Altogether the F-100 jet engine in the F-15 and F-16 fighters uses 1,485 pounds of chromium.

Superalloys, capable of performing at high temperatures, are made up of a large number of imported raw materials. Stellite -- the cobalt superalloy used here to extend the wear of valves -- consists of chromium, nickel, and tungsten, among other imports.

A TRW risk analysis showed that in 1980, the corporation imported critical materials from 27 countries, 21 of which are third-world nations ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

About these ads

``We sit squarely in the middle of the production pipeline,'' says George A. Harris, a TRW vice-president. With no large-scale mining or processing operations of its own and no retail selling of raw materials, he says, TRW's position ``is the same as that occupied by a large number of businesses -- small as well as large -- in the United States.''

Cobalt mined in the southern African country of Zaire reaches TRW through a long process complicated by all the intricacies of international politics and economics. Zaire ships cobalt ore and refined powder via its own West African port or through white-ruled South Africa, Marxist Mozambique, or socialist Tanzania.

Secondary producers in the US import the cobalt. They refine it to achieve greater purity or make stellite or other superalloys that TRW buys.

In an earlier era, large mining companies could operate relatively freely throughout a region or even globally. American corporations, Mr. Harris says, ``relied on their suppliers' strategies'' for acquiring materials.

Today it is not so simple.

Raw material commodities are the only major source of export earnings for many developing countries, whose young economies have not yet achieved significant industrialization. Intent on gaining control of these resources, just as they gained political independence, they have nationalized mining operations and sought better prices.

Zaire, which accounts for well over half of all cobalt production in the free world, has suffered debilitating economic setbacks since independence in 1960, in part because of its own mismanagement of resources.

But thanks to recent economic reforms, Zaire has ``integrated its industry much faster than anyone expected,'' says Mr. Bement. US government analysts believe it has used its commanding position to boost worldwide prices, which sagged during the global recession.

In the US, Zaire now works through a single distributor, Afrimet Indussa Inc., in which it has a financial interest.

These changes strengthening Zaire are good for US industry, some observers say. They ensure a more reliable supply of cobalt.

A wide range of foreign policy issues complicates mineral imports for Americans. The US imposed an embargo in the 1970s on chromium from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as part of its strategy to press the white government into accommodating the country's black majority. American business had to import from the Soviet Union, which accounts for nearly one-third of the world's chromium production.

The Soviets also produce about one-third of the world's manganese and nearly half of the platinum.

South Africa is especially well endowed with mineral resources. But industry executives say that its apartheid policies make it a candidate for an American embargo on minerals.

Internal political turmoil common to many newly independent countries can threaten supplies. Rebel disruptions in Zaire during 1978 caused cobalt prices to quadruple temporarily.

American industries have met this complex world by paying more attention to third-world issues and maintaining lines of communication with the developing nations.

Corning Glass, which needs superalloys in high-temperature production, has conducted an annual raw materials assessment for six years and sends representatives to southern Africa regularly, according to David Anderson, its manager of raw materials purchases.

When TRW faced the possibility in 1978 that Zairian cobalt might not be available, the corporation took the unusual step of buying cobalt itself.

It has also tried to stay in step with third-world development strategies. Thailand plans to use more of its tungsten and tin in manufacturing and to cut imports of finished products. Taking advantage of this, TRW is entering into a joint venture with the Thais to make engine valves.

The need to ensure adequate supplies of minerals in the event of a US national emergency has sparked heated controversy directed largely at the stockpile of strategic materials. Levels in the federally run stockpile are supposed to be sufficient for military and essential civilian needs during a three-year conventional war.

But in recent years levels have chronically fallen below goals, in large part, critics say, because successive administrations have sold off stockpile resources to help balance the budget.

A group of outside advisers to the Interior Department has recommended setting up a separate government corporation that would shield the stockpile. A bill in Congress would set stockpile levels by law.

Although TRW executives support reforms, they do not see the stockpile by itself as adequate even for national security. ``You need shock-load protection,'' Harris contends; ``it is not a long-term solution to anything.''

In a recent report, the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C., criticized one solution: a buildup of Navy forces to protect sea lanes through which mineral imports would flow. That, it said, would increase the risks of military involvement when other steps would be more effective.

Among the suggestions the center and others offer is to use foreign aid programs for increasing mineral production in countries that are not now exporters; to engage in more vigorous government research for mineral substitutes; and to barter.

Under the barter program, which was used extensively before 1973, the US traded surplus food for foreign minerals. The only recent deal involved an exchange of dairy products for Jamaican bauxite.

Diversifying production of cobalt requires increases in depressed prices for copper and nickel, according to the Bureau of Mines. Copper and nickel are mined with cobalt.

New Caledonia, the Philippines, Finland, and Botswana have started cobalt mining operations since 1960. Additional production may be possible in the Southwest Pacific.

Tax incentives and relaxation of pollution standards, Bement says, would encourage ``some [American] industries on the ragged edge of being profitable'' to go back into production.

TRW is also searching for mineral substitutes. Amid the din in this plant, TRW has put up a quiet laboratory for development of ceramic engine components. Norton Laboratories is helping.

TRW's need for materials may diminish slightly if it is able to sell the jet engine facility in Euclid, part of its strategy for streamlining the corporation.

But no alternative strategy will ever eliminate the need for imports, Harris says. And whoever buys the jet engine plant will also buy a window on the developing world.

This is the sixth in a series looking at US business and economic ties to the developing world.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.