A group of seventeen metallic elements whose names most of us have never heard recently came into the spotlight amid the latest trade tension escalation between Beijing and Washington. Rare earths, used in a myriad of products from electronic displays to lasers and electric cars, are currently the dominion of China and there is concern it could decide to weaponize this dominion. There is precedent.
Back in 2011, as a territorial dispute between China and Japan got rough, Beijing imposed a rare earths export embargo on its neighbor. The result: soaring prices as everyone started stockpiling in case things got even rougher until the World Trade Organization intervened and China lifted the embargo.
China is home to 85 percent of the world’s rare earths production capacity, and unlike other countries it has spend decades developing the most efficient technologies not just for extracting them but for processing these seventeen metals as well, as a recent in-depth analysis of the situation from the South China Morning Post noted. In short, China has the resources and the know-how to extract them. In a trade war this is a major advantage.
The U.S. imported 80 percent of the rare earths it used between 2014 and 2017, Reuters reported, as the topic garnered more media attention. There is only one rare earths mine operating in the country right now, the Mountain Pass in California, and it has only been operating for two years after MP Materials—a company with Chinese financial backing – bought it from Molycorp, which went under in 2015.
According to MP Materials, Mountain Pass produces a tenth of the world’s supply of rare earths… but there is no rare earths refining capacity on the site so everything mined at Mountain Pass is shipped to China for processing. The country has 220,000 tons in annual rare earths refining capacity. This is five times the combined refining capacity of the rest of the world. This is what can reasonably be called almost complete dependence.
The problem with shaking off this dependence is two-pronged. On the one hand, recycling is out of the question and will remain out of the question simply because rare earths are used in such tiny amounts there is not enough of them to recycle. Recycling companies don’t recover them at all when they separate materials from, say, electronic devices for recycling. Few companies are collecting them for recycling and working on new recycling technology specifically aimed at rare earths—but there are some.
Apple, for example, made a robot named Daisy that can recover 32 kilograms of rare earths per 100,000 iPhones recycled. Companies in Asia are also launching recycling plants for rare earths, but on a relatively small scale for now. It seems that mainstream recycling of rare earths will in all likelihood have to wait.
Alternative materials are also being researched with some success, but rare earths remain the dominant choice for electronics and various other products, pretty much like lithium ion batteries still dominate the battery industry despite the multitude of potential challengers.
MP Materials says it plans to reopen the refining facility at the Mountain Pass mine by the end of 2020. This would certainly be a start to reducing this uncomfortable dependence on China. Yet it will be just that, a start. An Australian company, Lynas, earlier this year sealed a deal with Blue Line Corporation in Texas to jointly build a rare earths separation facility on U.S. soil. That’s another step.
Shaking off China’s dominance in rare earths will take years, but it is necessary as the world’s demand for those seventeen elements will only continue to rise as we continue to increasingly depend on products that can’t work without them.