Today we're talking with Avraham Y. Anouchi, author of From Timna to Mars: Searching for Rare Earth Metals
FQ: You are an engineer yourself, and I was wondering, from your professional perspective, if you find this particular subject matter - metals that perhaps will decline and disappear if we are not careful - could very well be fact and not fiction? If so, how do you think the scientific community can change minds in the Oval Office and elsewhere to take this subject more seriously?
ANOUCHI: Although my book From Timna to Mars is a fictional work of my imagination, it is based on a real potential crisis for all humans on Earth. There has been a lot of publicity on the subject.
In 2011, the Pentagon issued an alarming report spotlighting the military dependence on rare-earth metals. It included a section on a potential Achilles’s heel for the US military’s reliance on rare earths used in manufacturing weapons. It highlighted high-end weapons, such as precision-guided bombs, advanced fighter aircraft, night-vision goggles, and targeting lasers, which depend on components built with rhenium, neodymium, europium, ruthenium, and other rare-earth metals. It even addressed nonmilitary threats to oil refineries and consumer technologies found in everything from smartphones to hybrid-car batteries.
The report stated that China has achieved an almost-complete monopoly on processing rare-earth oxides by producing more than 80 percent of the world’s needs. When the Chinese placed export quotas on rare-earth metals and oxides, the Pentagon expressed its concern about the potential supply interruptions. It urged the president and the Congress to allocate the funding to encourage United States–based companies to construct facilities for processing rare-earth oxides in the United States.
In my book, I highlighted only three elements that are crucial.
- Rhenium is used in small rocket thrusters for positioning satellites, drugs for treating liver cancer cells, and wires in photoflashes. With a melting point of 3,180 degrees Celsius, it enables the manufacturing of super alloys to operate at high temperatures in aircraft turbine blades and gas turbine engines.
- Ruthenium is used to enhance the strength of jet engine blades.
- Neodymium has high magnetic strength, which is critical in manufacturing small and efficient magnets used in many applications from large electric turbines, motors, generators, and windmills to miniature transformers in smartphones.
FQ: Along the same lines, is it farfetched to believe that our economic destruction could come in this way? Is this a lot like the ‘green’ areas of this world where greener fuels, power sources, etc., need to be taken seriously by all? Because, although there was a rise in interest a few years back, it seems that the green movement has been buried deep under other issues.
ANOUCHI: I don't believe that an economic destruction will occur as a result of fast depletion of rare earth metals. But it could certainly impact the global industrial operations. I contend that the term "Rare-Earth Metals" is a misnomer. Some should be labeled "Hard to Extract Metals". The process for purifying some raw rare earths is difficult and dangerous due to radio-activity. China has mastered that ability and now supplies more than 80 percent of the global needs. The United States and other countries have already started to develop that process.
FQ: There is an idea in the novel that beginning at home might be the thing to do for all industries, especially considering our space program has become non-existent. Do you believe that there are people focusing on just that? And, if so, could another horrible depression be avoided?
ANOUCHI: This is a great question. The scientific community has already written off the option of space mining. Many universities and Institutes of Technology have extensive research programs for finding on Earth solutions to many technological problems. They range from nanotechnologies, to understanding DNA, to producing new drugs, to creating better metals and many others. A horrible depression is not foreseeable unless a nuclear war erases all options.
FQ: The spy game you write about is extremely interesting and thrilling. With all the news regarding bugged telephones, drones, etc., do you believe that the ‘old spy game’ - most especially between Russia and the USA - still very much exists today? If so, what are your views on Russian interests in 2014, considering they are back in the news with Crimea and reporting on their ‘tensions.’ Could Russia be bringing back the USSR?
ANOUCHI: This is political question. The spy game has developed to be much more extensive that the old one. Bugged telephones and drones are the minor players. Cyber spying is the master with satellites, military versions of Google Earth, GPS, Facebook, Twiter, and other social websites are tools the KGB and CIA never dreamt of fifty years ago. I won't speculate on the intentions of Vladimir Putin after annexing Crimea to Russia. I leave it to the Oval Office.
FQ: Israel, in your book, is seen as a junior country when it comes to technology, as well as going up against such a power as Russia; has technology improved in Israel? Because it seems a great deal like there is more scientific explorations, discoveries and even help being given to America regarding the future?
ANOUCHI: Israel's technological prowess is incredible, especially as a small country the size of New Jersey and only 66 years old. With only eight million inhabitants, Israel built universities whose eight professors won Nobel Prizes in technology during the last ten years. Its high technology industries has puzzled every country. The creation of the Cornell-Technion Research Center in New York City was followed by a similar joint program of the Technion Institute of Technology with a Chinese university. Israel's development of the Iron-Dome missile defense system is demonstrated often when it stops enemy rockets. Even Intel has chosen Israel as the only country in which it built five research and manufacturing centers employing thousands of engineers and scientists.
FQ: The cat-and-mouse games are to the nth degree in this fascinating book. Were you always interested in, say, the spy game that was far more mystifying in the 1980’s?
ANOUCHI: Cloak and dagger games are not my specialty. I created the KGB-SVR-CIA-MOSSAD plots to enhance the novel's action of the space race between the United States, the Soviet Union, Russia and Israel.
FQ: Your historical novels are truly engrossing. I would assume you are a researcher at heart? Are there certain subjects you are interested in, and delving into history is a joy of yours?
ANOUCHI: I am a researcher at heart, in my profession as an electronics engineer, as an inventor and as a historical buff. I am especially interested in archaeology, which seems to be the only way to learn about ancient history. In my last book - The Hidden Scroll - I wrote about a search of parchments written in ancient Judea. It was also a fiction, but it required a lot of research.
FQ: Is there any way you could perhaps hint to readers about the next book regarding Queen Shlom-Zion?
ANOUCHI: The idea of writing a novel on rare-earth metals was an unexpected one. After the publication of The Hidden Scroll, I was writing another historical novel on Queen Shlom-Zion when two articles attracted my attention. One was on the forecasted depletion of special metals designated as rare-earth elements. The other was on the potential of space mining. I placed the first ten chapters of my yet-to-be-written historical creation in a bottom drawer of my desk and started to gather material on rare elements, asteroids or planets. Last month, I retrieved the ten chapters and I am working on the Queen's story, especially as it was observed by her brother Shimon Ben Shetach. This project will require very extensive research.
FQ: I always ask this of every author (a signature question, if you will), but I am extremely interested to hear your answer. If there was one person (alive or dead) who you could sit down and have a cup of coffee with and ask questions of, who would that be and why?
ANOUCHI: This is a difficult one. I have ten individuals who would have made me happy and excited if I could meet with them, but you won't believe it. Queen Shlom-Zion is the winner.