Rare Earths and Rarer Good Sense

Holy Guacamole, and three kinds of chips and dips! China did not just threaten to cut off the supply of rare earth minerals to the US? REMs are one of the few commodities on which the U.S. has not placed any extra import duties. Now they want to stop supplying it?

I mentioned this in passing a few months back on how the US has to restart its mines, and reduce dependence on non-allied powers to prevent being held hostage by powers inimical to the US.

Didn’t they learn anything from the REM ban debacle of 2010?

For the uninitiated, ‘Rare Earth Minerals’ (REM) refers to a set of about 17 minerals with certain magnetic and conductive properties which are essential in powering most electronic devices, smartphones, tablets, laptops, all the way through to satellites and solar panels. Most modern electronic devices cannot be produced without them.

The bulk of rare earth minerals, and I mean between 75% and 80%, is mined, refined and processed by China, which has the largest proven mines of the same. China produced 120, 000 MT of rare earth minerals in 2018, as compared to Australia which came in second with 20,000 MT.

Micro amounts of these minerals are used to boost batteries, power packs, processors, etc., pretty much depend on these REMs. And a sudden break in the supply could have some nasty consequences for world industry as a whole.

The thing is despite being called Rare Earth Minerals, these minerals are really not that rare, they may not be as abundantly available as Iron, Copper, Oxygen etc., but are still well stocked on the Earth’s crust.

The reason China dominates this trade is because the West prefers it that way. The process of refining and processing the ore includes acid baths and bouts of radiation, all of which leads to an environmentally messy situation, and which the West was happy to hand off to China way back in the 1990s.