Terbium is used to make flat-panel displays. Thulium can be found in your microwave. Dysprosium demand is growing with increased production of wind turbines and electric vehicles.
The 17 so-called “rare earth metals,” of which the three mentioned above are members, may not have household names like gold or copper, but they play strong supporting roles in many of the consumer electronics we enjoy on a daily basis, from our TVs to smartphones.
They also have important high-tech military, energy, health care and transportation applications. According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), each Lockheed Martin F-35 requires some 920 pounds of the metals. Some nuclear-powered submarines use up to 9,200 pounds.
All of this could be something of a concern in the near term. China, which accounts for close to 80 percent of the world’s annual production of rare earth metals, is allegedly preparing to curb the export of these important materials to the U.S. as a bargaining chip in the ongoing trade war between the two superpowers, and as retaliation for the recent U.S. ban on imports from Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei. In a tweet dated May 28, Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state-controlled Global Times newspaper, said that he believes the country “is seriously considering restricting rare earth exports to the U.S.” Some market commentators are already calling this China’s “nuclear” option.
“Rare,” by the way, is a misnomer here. The metals are actually more plentiful than precious metals such as gold and platinum. But because processing them is costly and leads to heavy pollution, China has risen to become the global leader. As few as six state-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate the Chinese rare earth metals mining and refining industry.