China may only have 30 percent of the rare earths in the world, but they essentially have a monopoly--which the rest of the world has been tirelessly trying to work around. (To wit: Japan looks to Vietnam, the U.S.
With the Chinese firmly in charge of the world's supply of rare earth metals, the Japanese have been hard at work trying to devise means to reduce their reliance on rare earths in the manufacture of things like electric car motors.
Rare earth elements have been the focus of a good deal of ink, a lot of anxiety, and a couple of tense international spats over the past year, but a Japanese discovery may make the valuable minerals a lot less rare. Geologists there say they’ve found huge concentrated deposits of rare earths in the Pacific seabed that could total 100 billion tons--or enough in a single square mile of seafloor to cover nearly half the world’s annual demand.
A chunk of magnetite guards the office door at the Pea Ridge iron mine near Sullivan, Mo., a mascot of the mine's past and future. When Jim Kennedy bought the mine in 2001, he'd planned to restart production on a high-grade iron ore deposit. He didn't realize he was sitting on a mother lode of 600,000 metric tons of high-grade rare earth elements -- elements the U.S. is desperately hungry for. Four years ago, he almost threw away reams of documents describing Pea Ridge's deposit. "Nobody bothered to tell me about it," he said.
Rare earth elements are getting a lot of ink these days, as questions about future supply have led to both political and economic tensions, and to a renewed search for rare earth deposits in North America, Australia, and parts of Southeast Asia. But some researchers think less rare earths, not more, are the key to sustaining industry's need for the minerals going forward.
Rare earth minerals – those 17 valuable elements with myriad industrial, commercial, and military applications – have been the subject of a lot of hand wringing lately. They're in short supply (at least in processed form), and with the exception of China no nation in the world can readily mine them from the Earth and process them in large quantities.
In the midst of what’s been shaping up as an undeclared rare earths standoff between China and some of it’s biggest customers in Japan and the West, Vietnamese and Japanese leaders have decided to collaborate in the exploitation of northern Vietnam’s rare earth elements. The deal was hammered out between the two nations’ prime ministers during a meeting on Sunday.
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.