Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

CleanTechnica
Rare earth minerals may be the most important factor in America’s transition to a low-carbon future - they're essential to virtually every source of renewable energy we use today. But China dominates global rare earth supplies and production, and their monopoly could corner the world economy. energyNOW! chief correspondent Tyler Suiters explores how U.S. dependence on China’s rare earths could affect our energy future and high-tech lifestyles.

Batteries

China’s Rare Earth Monopoly

Rare earth minerals may be the most important factor in America’s transition to a low-carbon future – they’re essential to virtually every source of renewable energy we use today.

But China dominates global rare earth supplies and production, and their monopoly could corner the world economy. energyNOW! chief correspondent Tyler Suiters explores how U.S. dependence on China’s rare earths could affect our energy future and high-tech lifestyles.

Rare earth minerals may be the most important, let least understood factor in America’s transition to a low-carbon, clean-tech future. They’re essential to virtually every source of renewable energy and consumer technology we use today.

But China dominates worldwide rare earth supplies and production, and their monopoly could corner the world economy. energyNOW! chief correspondent Tyler Suiters explores how U.S. dependence on China’s rare earths could affect our energy future and high-tech lifestyles. The full video is available below:

Americans are used to seeing the words “Made in China” on most things we buy, but could they soon also read “Mined in China?” The nation controls 97 percent of global production of the elements we rely upon in every aspect of modern life. Consider the technologies requiring rare earths: computers, smart phones, military jets, rocket systems, electric cars, wind turbines, energy-efficient light bulbs, and flat-screen televisions, to name a few.

China’s claim on the rare earths market began in the 1980’s. Premier Deng Xioping famously quipped “the Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths,” and the country rapidly ramped up mining efforts. This drove production costs down so sharply that rare earth mining became unprofitable in other countries, including the U.S., which had led global production since the 1960s. It also boosted China’s economy.

“They were very effectively using their control over the rare earth industry to force high-tech manufacturing into China,” said John Burba, CTO of Molycorp, operator of the only active rare earths mine in America. “I could look and see how fast it was leaving the United States.”

Molycorp hopes to counter China’s rare earths monopoly through its Mountain Pass mine in California. Until the 1980s, Mountain Pass was the single top producing rare earths mine in the world. Plunging commodity prices and a series of environmental accidents forced it to close.

Through a revamped approach that favors computer control and automation, Molycorp says it can safely produce 40,000 tons of rare earths a year by 2013 – equal to all U.S. demand. “A facility of this size in China would probably require 3,000 to 4,000 people,” said Mark Smith, Molycorp’s CEO. “We’ll have 300 or 400.”

Meeting that demand is critical to the burgeoning clean tech economy, which consumes 20 percent of the world’s rare earths. They coat the inside of compact fluorescent light bulbs, go into the magnets that turn electric vehicle batteries, and power the electrical generators inside wind turbines. For context, some of the biggest turbines can each use two tons of rare earths.

If production can’t be increased, another solution may be to find replacements. Companies with a big stake in renewables are actively looking for rare earth substitutes. General Electric says it has developed a higher-performance wind turbine magnetizer coil, completely free of rare earths, and Toyota is working on an EV motor that doesn’t need rare earths at all. But, both are still in the experimental phase and not yet market-ready.

So while breaking up the rare earths monopoly has environmental consequences, it also represents an economic imperative – and the window is closing. “The big danger is that China totally controls the production of all devices containing rare earths,” said Jack Lifton, of Technology Metals Research. “If we haven’t made any significant moves by 2015, we will simply no longer be a nation with any hope of doing so.”

 

Advertisement
 
Appreciate CleanTechnica’s originality? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica Member, Supporter, Technician, or Ambassador — or a patron on Patreon.
 
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Written By

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

Comments

You May Also Like

Cars

Tesla China exported over 4,000 EVs to Belgium over the weekend according to a video of this past Sunday’s shipment leaving the port of...

Clean Transport

COVID-19 forced many automakers and suppliers to shut down in China last month, and many of them are just beginning to ramp up production...

Cars

This piece continues my annual rundown of the top 10 EV countries in the world! See part 1 if you missed it. By Assaf Oron...

Cars

Shanghai authorities are working closely with Tesla to help it reopen Giga Shanghai after it paused production for 22 days in the broader effort...

Copyright © 2021 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.