DLA Strategic Materials: Promoting Home-Grown Resupply

From Armor & Mobility, March/April 2019 Issue

Since just before World War II, the U.S. has acquired and stored critical metals, minerals and agricultural supplies to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign sources in national emergencies. To supply those materials, the Defense Logistics Agency Strategic Materials Team provides safe, secure and environmentally sound sources, working with DLA’s Information Operations Research and Development Team.

By Program Executive Office, Combat Support & Combat Service Support

“The U.S. National Defense stockpile and R&D fall under the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act,” said Brian Gabriel, Chief, DLA Strategic Materials Planning Branch. “Essentially, we are [the Department of Defense’s] agency for looking at raw material supply chains during conflicts.” There are potential vulnerabilities in the supply chain, and his team understands the risks of relying heavily on foreign manufacturers for raw materials.

“There are about 200 materials on the strategic materials ‘watch list’,” noted Gabriel.

“The old saying is, we go from A-Z — aluminum to zinc. When we do our primary analysis, which runs in a two-year cycle, we’re running about 100 materials through our economic analysis — which is a lot of materials for our small teams to cover. There are recycling and reclaiming authorities for strategic and critical materials that allow DLA Strategic Materials to work with domestic industry to qualify substitutes,” he said.

Gabriel explained these are new authorities granted in recent National Defense Authorization Acts, specifically in a 2017 bill. “On programs where we see a supply chain risk from our analysis team, we don’t necessarily see stockpiling as the ideal solution right now. We’ve been working with R&D to do more novel risk mitigation programs.”

Domestic Solutions

One of the team’s biggest challenges is gaining dominance over foreign manufacturing of rare-earth materials.

“One thing that comes up constantly is the issue with rare-earth elements — the rare-earth market itself is heavily dominated by [foreign nations that] have good mineral endowments,” Gabriel said. “We can create some domestic production or get some alternative to those … materials into the DoD supply chains that adds to the robustness or resiliency of those supply chains.”

It’s a high-visibility area because of the interest in materials where there is a known foreign reliance issue, he said. “There’s a big push within the executive branch as a whole to try to make the U.S. more self-sufficient,” Gabriel added. “We’ve had to participate on two executive orders — one related to the overall defense industrial base, another specifically on critical minerals for all the government agencies to collaborate on. Federal officials are also seeking solutions before the issue becomes big enough to hurt U.S. jobs.”

“They’re looking for policy changes that will [reduce foreign reliance] in the long term. But resolving these overall economic large market issues takes a lot of time,” he said. “These things move in cycles, [but] there’s been a lot of movement in the rare-earth market and new technologies. I think the market is looking better for that particular material for domestic production in the next couple of years.”

DLA’s carbon-fiber project has been particularly successful. Carbon fibers are used in satellite applications, and in the past, foreign manufacturers who produced technically advanced carbon fibers held the monopoly on those materials. “While DLA doesn’t have the resources or the mandate to set up its own factories, the agency can and has set up smaller-scale projects like carbon fiber production,” said Matt Hutchens, DLA’s R&D program manager. “We started [the project] because there was a supply risk with foreign, ultra-high-modulus carbon fibers used on satellite structures,” he said. “There was a domestic product that became available and the folks that build the satellite structures needed to qualify it at a materials level.”

The fibers produced by the domestic companies looked comparable to or even better than the foreign fiber, Gabriel said. “After the domestic company fully qualified the materials, it was able to create designs based on the domestic fibers.”

Collaboration and Innovation

One goal in partnering with R&D is to set up a program that will spark domestic recycling capabilities for rare-earth elements. “Instead of mining them, which is difficult in the U.S., we can use waste streams,” said Gabriel. A waste stream is the complete flow of waste from domestic or industrial areas to final disposal. Recycling lessens the content of a waste stream as it moves down the line.

Vaibhav Jain, a DLA Strategic Materials materials engineer, talked about other difficulties with mining. “To start a new mine, especially in the U.S., is so expensive,” he said. “The whole process takes 10-15 years.” Jain explained that it’s easier to work from existing mines already in production. “One of the contracts we have found is [with] Rio Tinto — they have a copper smelting process in Utah,” he said. Smelting is the process of extracting metals from their ore by heating and melting. “When they recover copper from the ore, they have a lot of waste stream that goes out that’s of no use. Rio Tinto has put in the initial work and found a good amount of rhenium, which is an important critical material for DLA, used in high-octane fuel, super alloys and weapons systems,” Jain said. Recovering materials from the waste stream is expensive, but it’s something Rio Tinto has done successfully with DLA’s help, Jain added. “If they could optimize the process and improve their circuit, they would be able to recover extra material from the waste stream that’s already there because of the copper-smelting process,” he said.

Recovery and domestic production of materials greatly reduce the amount DLA needs to maintain in the stockpile. “Primarily, we look at foreign sources and single points of failure in the supply chain, and we come up with what we call the stockpile requirements,” Gabriel said. To determine how much new material needs to be produced, his team does an economic analysis. “All these efforts have also created more competition in the rhenium market and increased domestic sources of supply for jet engines,” Gabriel said. “It’s a better solution overall for us and for industry partners to do that domestic production,” he said. Stockpiling still works in some cases because there are materials DLA will always need to stock. But by collaborating with R&D, DLA Strategic Materials is setting up unique programs that extend how DLA and DoD approach sustainment of critical materials beyond stockpiling. Using creative problem-solving skills we can stand up capabilities and new ideas, he added.

Jain agreed. “If you solve a problem of production by something that already exists, the problem is solved for the next several years or next several decades,” he noted. Magnets and magnet alloys are important to DLA’s mission as well. But the U.S. had few domestic companies to manufacture the rare-earth supplies permanent magnets are made from. DLA is working with Urban Mining Company (UMC) in Austin, Texas, to solve this. “We need magnets for regular work as well as for specialized weapons systems applications and precision-guided bombs,” Jain noted. “They are critical to the weapons systems in DoD. UMC finds magnets at the end of life-cycle from hard drives, phones and MRI machines, and using a proprietary process, the company makes new magnets it says are better than the original product,” he noted.

Using recovered waste, UMC takes a neodymium magnet, the most widely used type of rare-earth magnet, and inserts it directly into its own magnet-recycling process. In 2014, DLA’s main focus for the program was stockpiling materials. “Now, we’re using other risk-mitigation approaches — stockpiling, recycling, working with domestic industries to build up technologies for domestic production, qualifying these domestic materials — the whole toolbox itself is much larger for the stockpile program and for DLA,” Gabriel said. “DLA R&D has been a big part of that in expanding the toolbox.”

Recycling Versus Recovery

Federal agencies and facilities are directed to implement acquisition programs aimed at encouraging new technologies and building markets for environmentally preferable and recycled products. While recovery occurs in the waste stream, recycling refers to the reuse or regeneration from an end-of-life-cycle product.

DLA’s R&D mission differs from that of DLA Strategic Materials because the latter is viewing the risks “of a whole gamut of materials,” while R&D focuses more on inventory control and acquisition processes. But they work together when there’s a potential R&D processing solution, said Hutchens. “We’ve done some small business innovation research on the rare-earth recycling, but we’re [looking] at some other areas to do that as well where we can recycle products that are foreign sourced, essentially. Where DLA Strategic Materials sees a risk, a need or maybe even just a significant cost reduction that we can achieve, we’ll talk to them and see what their requirements are.”

On Oct. 1, 2017, the R&D group became part of DLA Information Operations. Now, in addition to investing in anti-counterfeiting efforts, Hutchens said another fairly new project involves working with DLA Distribution to expand the use of lithium-ion batteries in forklifts. “We’re looking at what sort of modernization could we do in the distribution warehouses — utilizing robotics, robotic stackers and improving data management,” he said. Jain said DLA is also exploring the recycling process for lithium-ion batteries. “We’re always looking for ways to recycle what the current feedstock is. Lithium-ion has lithium, cobalt and a small amount of rare-earths,” he said. “But sometimes we have limitations on how much feedstock we can get.”

Hutchens said DLA R&D has been participating in a robust Battery Network (BATTNET) program since 2010. The program reduces life-cycle costs and logistics requirements by reducing the size and weight of personal and vehicle batteries and extending their run time. The team is also working on new designs to reduce environmental hazards. Batteries referred to as wet, or flooded lead-acid, are no longer used. “Some of the military’s batteries have been merged over to the new technology, which is the absorbent glass material — it’s more of either a gel or harder substance inside instead of a liquid acid,” he said. “It performs better, it has much better vibration resistance, you don’t have to replace acid and so you’re getting rid of all that maintenance activity out in the field.” Two types of batteries that no longer have any commercial use, 2HN and 4HN, are used for turret power on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

“We found a company that would do the research and development to give us a new advanced battery that will outperform [the old batteries] but will have the same fit and function,” Hutchens said. “The old ones will go away or be disposed of, and once the new ones are qualified, we’ll just buy them off of a new [National Stock Number].”

“The new battery replaces about 120 pounds of electronic equipment,” Hutchens said. “We think it’ll save about $8 million of procurement a year, when you look at all the components this battery replaced.”

Future Technologies

In addition to BATTNET, DLA R&D uses diverse manufacturing methods to innovate in the discrete-parts support of fielded weapons systems and is investigating other technologies. These initiatives include casting and forging and additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.

“Every day they’re looking at more parts that they prefer to use this process for,” Hutchens said. “We’re actually going back and working with the services for legacy parts within the supply system.”

Another necessary innovation is microcircuit emulation, because of the hard-to-find older microcircuits DLA still uses. “We are spending about $10 million a year to advance the production capability as microcircuits [become] more obsolete,” he said. “It saves billions of dollars — that’s actually one of our bigger manufacturing technology programs.”

Finally, DLA’s Energy Readiness Program is used to qualify alternative fuels, such as biofuel, Hutchens said. “Sometimes suppliers add large doses of antioxidant to the fuel to mask unstable characteristics of the fuel,” he explained. However, DLA R&D developed methods to identify high levels of antioxidants and assess the underlying quality of the fuel. Testing is necessary to determine how alternative fuels such as biofuels will perform in comparison to traditional jet fuels.