90 Miles From Tyranny : China can’t control the market in rare earth elements because they aren't all that rare

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Friday, May 31, 2019

China can’t control the market in rare earth elements because they aren't all that rare

You can’t handle the truth (about rare earth elements)

If you need to know one thing about rare earth metals, it’s that they’re crucial to modern technology, helping power everything from MRI machines and satellites to headphones and nuclear reactors. If you need to know two things, it’s that despite their name, they’re not at all rare.

This second fact is important when putting recent headlines about these 17 oddly named elements in proper context. Last week, many publications covered the news that a Japanese team of scientists had found a huge trove of rare earth elements off the coast of the country’s Minamitori Island. Some 16 million tons were estimated to be lurking in the deep-sea mud, enough to meet global demand on a “semi-infinite basis,” said the researchers.

This news was presented as having great geopolitical significance. China currently produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth materials (the exact figure tends to fluctuate year-by-year), and in the event of a conflict, said reports, it could jack up prices for the West and its allies, or even shut them out altogether. In this eventuality, the Minamitori hoard would be a lifeline. “It is important to secure our own source of resources, given how China controls the prices,” Professor Yutaro Takaya Waseda, who led the Japanese research team, told The Wall Street Journal.

But experts say this narrative is wrong. Despite appearances, the Minamitori find is not as significant as headlines have implied. And although China seemsto wield great power over this critical global supply chain, the truth is that the country can’t just bring the West to its knees by limiting exports of rare earth elements. We know this pretty conclusively because it tried this in 2010, and it didn’t work out. In both cases, the overlooked factor is just how difficult it is to produce rare earth elements, compared to how easy it is to find them.The name “rare earth” is a historical misnomer, stemming from the fact that when they first discovered they were difficult to extract from surrounding matter. The USGS (United States Geological Survey) describes rare earth elements as “moderately abundant,” meaning that they’re not as common as elements like oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron (which together make up 90 percent of the Earth’s crust), but still well dispersed around...

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SiGraybeard said...

The US used to mine our own rare earth metals, until the anti-progress groups raised the costs so high that it was cheaper to buy them from overseas.

10 year ago I heard that there were mines in California (Sierra Nevada mountains) that were just waiting for the price to go up enough to make a profit.

Brass said...

Just saw an announcement that they are building a rare earth metals refinery somewhere in Texas.