Rare earth elements form a crucial part of everyday high-tech products.
Rare earth elements form a crucial part of everyday high-tech products.

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.

“The United States, not so long ago, was the world leader in producing and exporting rare earths,” said Brad Miller, the Democratic Representative from North Carolina and chairman of the subcommittee. “Today, China is the world’s leader.”

Experts testified that China’s state-owned mines had set artificially low prices for the rare earth market, and that Chinese manufacturers had also forced most U.S. rare earth and permanent magnet manufacturers out of business. Rare earth magnets represent a major component in Toyota’s Prius hybrid and other clean tech.

Companies such as IBM have also begun investing in new solar cells and other technologies that don’t require rare earths, partly because of the dangers of relying too much upon foreign suppliers.

But there’s also opportunity from investing in rare earths, besides avoiding a supply chain problem. Karl Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa, called for the creation of a National Research Center on Rare Earths and Energy as well as a National Research Center for Magnetic Cooling.

Magnetic refrigeration is a hot new area for energy-efficient, green technology that can handle cooling and climate control. Cooling below room temperature currently takes up 15 percent of all the energy consumed in the U.S., but the rise of magnetic refrigeration could slash that by 5 percent.

Given all the energy problems with keeping massive data centers cool in the Information Age, we also imagine that Google and other companies might welcome magnetic refrigeration with open arms. That is, as long as the U.S. can secure its own domestic rare earth supply or find new overseas suppliers.