…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?
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