Rare Earth Elements and America’s Security

Rare Earth Elements and America’s Security

Rare earths are vital to the manufacture of critical new products, especially those products required for emerging technologies and national defense.

Neodymium, for example, is used in powerful permanent magnets needed for hybrid cars and electric vehicles, as well as for wind turbines. 

Rare earths, such as europium and terbium are used in LCDs, LEDs, TV’s, CAT Scanners, and MRIs.

Rare earths are also essential for many military hardware applications, such as night-vision goggles and jet engines. 

Rare earths have two things in common:

  • First, they really aren’t that rare around the world, but they rarely exist in large enough quantities to be mined economically.
  • Second, their chemical properties are similar so that it’s difficult to separate them from one another, making it expensive to process the mined material into pure substances that can be used in high-tech applications.

China is the dominant supplier of rare earths to countries around the world.

It mines approximately 67% of all the rare earths mined in the world.

Processing rare earths is difficult and potentially damaging to the environment. Rare earths are expensive when processed carefully to prevent environmental damage.

China has restricted foreign companies from mining rare earths in China and has provided most of the world’s processed rare earths. As of 2019, China produced roughly 85 percent of the world’s rare earth oxides and approximately 90 percent of rare earth metals, alloys, and permanent magnets.

Of the 17 rare earths listed in Wikipedia, exports from China are shown in the accompanying table.

In 2010, China restricted the export of rare earths and their price sky rocketed. China reversed these restrictions as the result of a WTO suit, but there is no reason why China couldn’t restrict their availability again.

 A  report by the Congressional Research Service, Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress, said:

The supply chain for rare earth elements generally consists of mining, separation, refining, alloying, and manufacturing (devices and component parts). A major issue for REE development in the United States is the lack of refining, alloying, and fabricating capacity that could process any future rare earth production.”

Additional information is available from the article, Does China Pose a Threat to Global Rare Earth Supply Chains?, by the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Rare Earth Mining in the United States

  • The only rare earth mine in the US has been reopened in Mountain Pass, California. The company, MP Materials, can mine rare earths but must currently send them to China for processing. MP Materials is attempting to install facilities in 2021 to refine and separate the rare earths it mines.
  • There is also an attempt to allow Australia’s Lynas Corporation and US-based Blue Line Corporation to construct a processing facility in Texas.
  • A Lithium and Boric Acid mine is proposed for Nevada by another Australian company, with its first product shipment scheduled for 2023, assuming all the regulatory and environmental hurdles can be overcome.

The United States is basing many of its technology programs on the use of rare earths. Battery-powered vehicles, wind turbines and many applications needed for national defense require rare earths. 

As with other strategic needs, such as pharmaceuticals, the United States is at the mercy of China.

Will it be possible to open enough rare earth mines in the US to protect our national interest?

. . .

 

 

12 Replies to “Rare Earth Elements and America’s Security”

  1. Thanks Donn,
    Our vulnerability to these strategic minerals reminds me of being dpendent on imported oil in 1974. Everything was lovely and gasoline $0.33/gallon and then…Embargo. That took a long time to correct. Given our dependence on vital minerals for nearly all of our advanced electronics, EV’s and electricity generation Congress and the Bureaucrats of the DC Swamp need to wake up and allow more mining within teh U.S.A. The National Minerals Assoc had a slogan some years ago, “If it is not grown, it is mined”….Still true

    • Thanks for your comment.
      Mining is crucial if we are to maintain our industrial base.
      It’s also an area in which we are uniquely capable with world leading technology and capabilities.

  2. Many decades back the US did produce a significant amount of rarer metals, although world demand and production was much lower then. However, like many other manufactured items, China could produce the same product at lower cost, so much of the rarer metal production shifted there.
    Sometimes you need to pay more for a product now in order to keep some control, or else pay much, much more later when you don’t have control, and may not be able to get it at all. There was a time when the US understood that.

    • Yes. Unfortunately, there is a history, essentially a series of events over decades, where there was a drive to utilize low cost areas for manufacturing products, followed by a globalist view of economics, and a desire to see poor countries develop to eliminate poverty etc. Some of these events were morally based, the idea of helping others achieve prosperity, for example. Profitability and survival were also motivators during the past several decades as these events unfolded. (A company in the US couldn’t compete manufacturing radios when companies in Japan and Asia could make them at 1/3 the cost. The result: Move the manufacturing from the US to Asia.)
      I understand this series of events because of my personal experiences establishing companies, i.e.subsidiaries, over seas to support GE products. Today, we have other force at work: Environmentalism and climate change, aka global warming, that will affect our ability to restore mining operations in our country.

  3. I don’t anticipate any problems with US finding sufficient rare earths. As you point out, they’re not really rare.

    The difficulty is with the processing. A usual waste product is thorium, a mildly radioactive element. No one really worries about it when it’s just lying around where nature left it, but when the ore has been processed, what’s left is deemed to be radioactive waste.

    The US has a similar problem when it mines its home-grown phosphates. Phosphorus has an affinity for uranium, so what’s left over is also deemed radioactive waste.

    This is thus a bureaucratic and administrative problem, not a matter where there’s any shortage of resources. Given the problems with Yucca Mountain, I don’t expect the US government to deal with this tangle of red tape any time soon.

    • My fear is that bureaucrats, egged on by radical environmentalists, will obstruct any effort to mine and process rare earths.

    • What you referring to is properly labeled TENORM – Technically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials. The regulations surrounding TENORM are increasing and the options for dealing with TENORM are decreasing and more expensive. Regulations currently forbid them from being moved across state lines and not every state has a certified facility to accept them. This is just a small part of the increasing regulatory burden we see in the Oil and Gas sector.

      • Thanks for your comments. Excellent information. I’m not familiar with the details surrounding these regulations, but I can see where there could be considerable bureaucratic interference with the handling and processing of rare earths.
        Perhaps you can supply a few examples to better bring the issue into focus.

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  6. australianmining.com.au/news/lynas-to-feed-new-us-plant-with-kalgoorlie-rare-earths/ dated 22 Jan 21.

    Evidently Lynas has an agreement with DOD to import partially processed rare earths from Australia and refine them in the US. The thorium will thus remain in Oz.

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