RARE Earth Elements: Not so Rare
China has been criticized for holding back its exports of rare Earth elements, which are needed for making high-tech goods, including hybrid cars, flat-screen TVs, advanced batteries, mobile phones and more. In the US, the land of plenty, it seems that we are dependent on China for commodities that we just don’t have. In reality, the United States led the production of rare Earth materials until the 1990s. China with its lower production costs, low labor costs, and lack of environmental regulation, was simply the low bidder.
Rare Earth Elements, commonly known as REEs consist of the lanthanides (atomic numbers 57 to 71), scandium (21) and yttrium (39) and have closely similar chemical and magnetic properties. REEs were identified during the 18th and 19th centuries as oxide components within seemingly rare minerals. In actuality REEs are not so rare. Cerium is the most abundant REE, and it is actually more common in the Earth’s crust than is copper or lead. All of the REE except promethium are more abundant than silver or mercury.
Mining of rare-earth minerals in the United States has long been on the decline, not because we don’t have any, but because of the cost of mining. Pre-mining capital requirements for proposed new mining operations (2010) could cost a half a billion dollars, or more. The time required for development of new REE mines is on the order of at least a decade, maybe longer.
According to the US Geological Survey (www.USGS.gov) deposits of REE-bearing ore exist in California, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Wyoming, and Alaska. Substantial reserves also exist in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Greenland, Brazil, and Vietnam. In spite of having 36% of the world’s identified reserves, China accounts for 95 % of global REE production.
Although REEs are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, they are rarely concentrated into mineable ore deposits.During the past 50 years outside of China there has been little REE exploration and almost no mine development. The last REE deposit discovered and developed into a mine in the US was the Mountain Pass mine in California, discovered in 1949. And that was sort of an accident. This deposit was found in the course of a US Geological Survey radioactivity reconnaissance project looking for uranium.
As any manufacturing company knows, relying primarily on one source for a critical component is risky. If the US would channel REE sourcing to reliable trading partners, such as Australia and Canada, prospects for diversifying supply and meeting future demand would be considerably improved.