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Molycorp Minerals, Hitachi Rare Earth Recycling, and Baotou Steel China - A Race for Rare Earth Rights

Updated on April 21, 2017
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The Race for Rare Earth Rights Continues

This article was originally written and published in August 2011. Since then Mark A. Smith, CEO of Molycorp Minerals, LLC has resigned. At the time of this update (March 2017) Geoffrey R. Bedford is the CEO.

Mark A. Smith, CEO of Molycorp Minerals, LLC. and Hiroaki Nakanishi, CEO of Hitachi in Japan, are two important names in the field of rare earths industry. Molycorp Minerals is a rare earth mining company located in Mountain Pass, California. The rare earth metals include lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium (9,900), and yttrium. Molycorp is one rare earth mining company in the United States, along with a few others. Around the world, there are several countries hoping to further national involvement in rare earth metals.

Today, companies use many rare earth elements in their products. Hiroaki Nakanishi of Hitachi is one progressive when it comes to rare earth recycling. Hitachi leads in the rare earth recycling efforts as China slashes its exports to the rest of the world. The next phase brings a new machine which will dissemble items like computer hard disks. The following phase will separate rare earths from other materials without producing environmentally hazardous waste. Typically, extraction of these metals requires acids and other toxic chemicals. Hitachi and Nakanishi recognize that to have a ‘clean energy’ revolution, recycling must part of the infrastructure.

They Might Be Rare, But They're In Everything We Own

How important are rare earth metals to our society? These rare earth metals can be found in everything: from low-tech lighter flints, iPod ear buds, and glass polishing, to high-tech magnetic refrigeration, solar panels, wind turbines, and MRI machines:

  • Dysprosium and neodymium are used in high-strength electric motor magnets
  • Yttrium is used to make lasers
  • Praseodymium is used in aircraft searchlights and lanthanum is used in electric car batteries
  • Europium is used in televisions, laser technology and nuclear reactors.

These metals are rare for several reasons. Firstly, most of the metals are found in the Earth’s crust with only a few sources of deposits in the world. Secondly, for our technology to work as efficiently rare earth metals cannot be replaced with another, more common alternative. The lack of these metals in the world and the inability to replace them simply with a more abundant metal make this business all the more lucrative.

China & the Rare Earth Industry

Although Molycorp and Hitachi are well-versed in the rare-earth business, China owns 97% of the world’s rare earth mines. China’s main source of rare earth elements comes from Baotou Steel in Inner Mongolia and China Minmetals Corporation in Southern China. As fears rise over China’s ‘monopoly’ on the rare earth industry, even more countries are forming partnership deals and staking out new locations to mine for rare earth elements. China did not rise to the top overnight. In 1986, China began Program 863. Endorsed by Deng Xiaoping, the program attempted to improve China’s global technological and economic status. In 1997, Program 973 was created as a basic research program, in part to develop China’s rare earth industry. This, combined with a lack of unified regulation, has brought China to its current position of becoming the world’s largest exporter of rare earth metals. Unregulated operations in Southern China are estimated to produce roughly half of the world’s heavy rare earths, some of the most valuable rare earth elements in the industry.

Rare Earth Politics

As with oil, natural gas, water, or any other finite resource we consume, the global race to stake a claim on these rare earth havens will likely be a competitive and long one. As more products grow to rely on rare earth elements for their capabilities, so too will countries and their geopolitical policies. It's a race, in fact, that has only just begun, and it will be interesting to see how these small yet powerful rare metals influence the future of energy policy and even, perhaps, long-term diplomatic negotiations.

Check out this cool interactive map of rare earth element mines, deposits, and occurrences from the U.S. Department of Interior Geological Survey for more detailed information on rare earth mining throughout the world (map of Baotou Steel, Hitachi, and Molycorp Minerals below).


Rare Earth Metals Graph
Rare Earth Metals Graph | Source

Where in the World Are Rare Earth Minerals?

show route and directions
A markerBaotou, China -
Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China
get directions

China’s main source of rare earth elements comes from Baotou Steel in Inner Mongolia and China Minmetals Corporation in Southern China

B markerMolycorp Minerals Mine -
Mountain Pass, CA, USA
get directions

Molycorp Minerals is a rare earth mining company located in Mountain Pass, California.

C markerHitachi Rare Earth Recycling -
Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan
get directions

© 2011 Michelle Offik

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    • alanlsg profile image

      Alan Bowman 5 years ago from The World

      An excellent outline of what is going to be a real world problem if more sources are not found.

      Mind you the Chinese are great as they always think generationally and the way they have cornered the market is an example to us all not to just think short term

      Voted up, useful, interesting and awesome.

      Kind regards

      Alan

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