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China's Heavy Production Monopoly and List Map of Countries in Mining Rare Earth Element (REE)

Updated on August 12, 2013
J-20 stealth fighter at Chengdu air base,China
J-20 stealth fighter at Chengdu air base,China

The New York Times calls them "The world's most obscure but valuable minerals"

China has a production monopoly on rare earth element (REE).For almost 20 years the west and the U.S. have not fully comprehend the strategic significance of rare earth elements(REE). Research and new discoveries for uses that where non-existent 15 or even 10 years ago have increase their importance in our technology-run world.

Discovered in the late 18th century as oxidized minerals,hence "earths",but they're actually metals.The dirt in your backyard would probably contain a few parts per million yet the rarest rare earth is nearly 200 times more abundant than gold.

Rare earth element is a misnomer.They are actually not that rare just difficult to find and extract in large enough quantities to make mining them profitable.
These rare earth elements are largely found in some of the world's most environmentally damaging mines which is ironic when you consider that REE's are use in eco-friendly hybrid and electric cars. They are typically the by-product in mining operations of precious metals and base metals

Hematite and Magnetite containing iron,phosphorus and trace amounts of REE found scattered on the grounds of an abandon U.S. mine
Hematite and Magnetite containing iron,phosphorus and trace amounts of REE found scattered on the grounds of an abandon U.S. mine

China is one of the very few places where rare earth element exist in large areas and is also suspected to hold the world's largest known reserve which the British Geological Survey estimate at 37% while the former Soviet bloc has18% and the US at 12% with other large deposits held by Australia,India,Brazil,South Africa and Malaysia.
But China supplies more than 95% of the world's need. Like OPEC which controls oil,China dictates the market for rare earth elements.

Except for some small-scale operations in the West,The refining,alloying and manufacturing of rare earth on a major industrial level do not exist outside of China.

Currently,worldwide requirement for rare earths totals about 120,000 tons per year. Demand for rare earth would continue to increase as world population grows. It is expected to exceed 225,000 tons by 2015.

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping

"There is Oil in the Middle East; there is Rare Earths in China" ~ Former Chinese Premier and statesman Deng Xioaping (1904-1997) who initiated the modernization of China after the disastrous Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong declared in 1992.

For the last 15 years China have carefully plan and actively supported its rare earth mining operations. While the rest of the western world were closing down mines because of heavy environmental regulations that made mining operations unprofitable,China with less stringent regulation on pollution and lower labor cost was able to undercut prices and drive competitors out of business. Establishing itself as the world's dominant producer of rare earth metals

Abandoned Iron mine,Missouri has thorium sources mine that is radioactive requiring special processing and cleanup. Owners are pressing lawmakers to establish a public-private $1 billion cooperative
Abandoned Iron mine,Missouri has thorium sources mine that is radioactive requiring special processing and cleanup. Owners are pressing lawmakers to establish a public-private $1 billion cooperative
Chinese J-20 stealth fighter
Chinese J-20 stealth fighter

The rest of the world took notice when in the fall of 2010 China imposed an embargo on REE exports to Japan over a maritime dispute. It also timed the maiden flight of it's latest prototype stealth fighter,the J-20 during U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates visit to China in early January this year. A subtle show of strength to protest the US sales of offensive military weapons to Taiwan.

REE has extensive use in Stealth technology. Some analysts suggest that China has made faster progress than expected in developing a rival to the U.S. Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor, the world's only operational stealth fighter designed to evade detection by radar.

Ten years ago China exported 75% of its production of rare earth metals to the rest of the world. Today it exports less than 25%, even though its production in the last 10 years have more than doubled. It is also creating a huge stockpile for it's own future use.

Some suspect that China is trying to use it's control of this strategic resource for political leverage.But other analysts believe it is the Chinese's concern on the increasing domestic demand for REE which will surpass production around 2012 that a total export ban to the rest of the world becomes a possibility.

Rare Earth Oxides
Rare Earth Oxides
REE under UV light
REE under UV light

“America has a new dependency and it’s not middle east oil. It is instead several arcane elements known as Rare Earth Elements (REE).” ~ Forbes

Old mines in the United States,Canada and Australia are being re-open and brought back into production,Test drilling are on going to discover other new sources.But in order to resume full production, miners face a difficult task.

The old dirty and dangerous processes used in REE mining are now economically and environmentally unsustainable.Beside putting up the expensive infrastructure needed.Highly sophisticated and cutting edge techniques and strategies are now required to provide for clean mining and refining of the REE ore from rocks into the pure metals needed in high-end technology.When the mines close down in the U.S., most of the engineering and R&D expertise moved overseas for better paying jobs.

Conforming to environmental restriction on pollution and the bureaucratic red tape involve to obtain mining permits (which the U.S. Department of Energy estimate would take about 7 to 10 years),the longest among the world's top-25 mining countries is also hindering development.

A recent review from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said it would take up to 15 years for the U.S. to produce enough supply for it's own consumption and break its dependence on foreign sources.

The separations plant at the Molycorp Mountain Pass mine in California. The mining company may have to spend $400 million  to expand output.
The separations plant at the Molycorp Mountain Pass mine in California. The mining company may have to spend $400 million to expand output.

The Rare Earth Elements

Currently, approximately 49 elements in the periodic table are considered rare earth/strategic metals.They include such elements as cerium, manganese, titanium and tungsten. A subset of strategic metals,REEs are a collection of 17 chemical elements that are essential in many of today’s most advanced technologies, with particular applications in electronics.

Lanthanum (La),Cerium (Ce),Praseodymium (Pr) Neodymium (Nd),Promethium (Pm),Samarium (Sm),Europium (Eu),Gadolinium (Gd),Terbium (Tb),Dysprosium (Dy),Holmium (Ho),Erbium (Er) Thulium (Tm),Ytterbium (Yb),Lutetium (Lu) Yttrium (Y),Scandium (Sc)
Lanthanum (La),Cerium (Ce),Praseodymium (Pr) Neodymium (Nd),Promethium (Pm),Samarium (Sm),Europium (Eu),Gadolinium (Gd),Terbium (Tb),Dysprosium (Dy),Holmium (Ho),Erbium (Er) Thulium (Tm),Ytterbium (Yb),Lutetium (Lu) Yttrium (Y),Scandium (Sc)

Uses of rare earth elements

They are the secret ingredients of every high-tech devices we use today from smart phones to hybrid vehicles to cordless power drills and X-ray machines. The list of things that contain REE continues to grow and expand.

Magnets made with REE are much more powerful than conventional magnets and weigh less.It's one of the reason why so many electronic devices have gotten so small.

Green technology,including hybrid cars and wind turbines need REE.The battery in a single Toyota Prius contains more than 20 lbs of lanthanum; the magnet in a large wind turbine may contain more than 500 lbs. of neodymium.The phospors - the red color in your TV screen comes from Europium and the green color is created by phospors made from Terbium.

The U.S. military need them for night vision goggles,cruise missiles and other smart weapons.

The many uses of Rare Earth Elements
The many uses of Rare Earth Elements

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. forecasts annual sales of hybrid cars rising to 11.28 million units by 2020, from 480,000 hybrid cars in 2008.

"Technology metals" can be found in virtually every part of an automobile -- from fuel injectors, to airbag and seat belt sensors, to the speakers, anti-lock brakes, power steering and seat adjustment motors, to the tires and even the fuel itself!

Rare earth elements in hybrid technology
Rare earth elements in hybrid technology

The Japanese and German Governments are looking for alternative source to replace nuclear energy following the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis in Japan.The push into renewable energy sources such as wind farms,solar and biomass will add to the demand of REE.

The World Wind Energy Association notes that wind power capacity increased by 38,312 MW in 2009, and demand for an additional 1.74 million MW is possible by 2020.

By 2014,it is forecast that 55% of all REE demand will be taken up by wind turbines and electric motors.

Soon to rise in 2012,Sweden's largest wind farm which is expected to produce enough clean energy equivalent to the power usage of 150,000 households.
Soon to rise in 2012,Sweden's largest wind farm which is expected to produce enough clean energy equivalent to the power usage of 150,000 households.
American Flag made in China
American Flag made in China

China's monopoly of REE a direct threat to U.S. security

China is the leading supplier of components critical to the operation of high tech U.S. weapons and defense systems.

U.S. intelligence agencies recently informed Congress that allowing Chinese components in the cell phone towers for next generation wireless networks will make U.S. communications extremely vulnerable to electronic spying by China.

"I've been going out to Washington DC every other week for about two years trying to tell the rare earths story," ~ Mark Smith,Molycorp Minerals CEO

At a recent seminar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,one PowerPoint presentation on critical material strategy report lingered on a slide that showed only the Chinese flag.The room filled with nervous laughter.Has the US government finally taken notice of the impending crisis that is certain to affect critical industries?

Proposed trade sanctions to counter China's export cuts is a no win situation. A better alternative is to fast track the production and development of indigenous mother-load of rare earth assets to meet the domestic demands and recapture this vital and strategic industry co-opted by China.

map of countries producing ree
map of countries producing ree

Some steps taken by the U.S. Government to assist domestic development and production of REE

Recently,the Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation (RESTART) Act of 2011 was introduced into legislature.This will initiate the giving out of loans to the industry and also facilitate and ease the permit requirements.

President Obama has also set aside funds to create a REE research hub modeled after the famous "Manhattan Project where top scientists will develop a REE supply chain. This will consist of targeting the top domestic development projects to provide refining and separation facilities to manufacture the ore into a final product.

Another bill stopping sham U.S."recyclers" from dumping electronic waste on developing countries have been introduce in Congress with the added provisions for research into the recycling and recovery of rare earths from these waste materials.

US location of rare earth elements
US location of rare earth elements

Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success. - Henry Ford

Jack Lifton,a leading authority on the sourcing and end use trends of rare & strategic metal who along with two other American experts on rare earth (Professor Karl Gschneidner of the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University and Professor William J. Evans of the University of California) were invited to be guest speakers at the 2010 China Rare Earth Summit, part of the 6th International Conference on Rare Earth Development and Application. The conference was well attended by many foreign companies and academe with the exception of the U.S.

"If the rare earth supply issue is so important to America’s security, why then do so few Americans and almost no American media come to the world’s premier rare earth informational event?" ~ Jack Lifton


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