Rare earth elements have received a good deal of attention lately, not least because they are indeed very rare, and the country holding most known reserves – China – is gobbling them up faster than it can mine them, leaving few leftovers for export. But now Boeing has announced a deal to deploy its remote sensing technology to map out possible U.S. deposits of rare earth elements in an effort to rebuild a domestic supply chain for U.S. industry.
The world is running short on several metals, but perhaps more disconcerting is the impending loss of the noble helium. The stuff of birthday balloons, superconducting magnets and Mickey Mouse voices could get a lot more expensive in the near future, according to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
All those hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines and similar clean tech innovations may count for nothing if the U.S. cannot secure a supply of rare earth minerals. Ditto for other advanced telecommunications or defense technologies, scientists told a U.S. House subcommittee.
China has supplied 91 percent of U.S. consumption of rare earths between 2005 and 2008, and continues to represent the world's largest rare earth exporter. But the Chinese have warned that their own domestic industry appetite for rare earths may eventually force them to stop exporting -- an action that would leave the U.S. high-tech industries crippled without other readily available supplies.