Rare Earth Elements: The Energy Question of the 21st Century?


While issues pertaining to oil production and dependence have dominated headlines in years past, perhaps America’s real energy concern right now should be focused on rare earth elements. China, our fiercest global economic competitor, currently holds a monopoly on the extraction and refinement of rare earths, a set of 17 chemical elements critical to the manufacturing of weapons systems, emerging green technologies, mobile devices, and a bevy of household electronic devices, including computers and televisions. [1]

 Despite their name, rare earth elements are actually not all that rare in the earth’s crust. Rather, the large expense associated with extracting these metals often makes mining an unprofitable, and thus rare, venture, performed only in regions with the highest concentrations of rare earth elements [5]. Although America holds the second most plentiful deposits of rare earths and even dominated the industry until the 1990s, a combination of stricter environmental regulations and more expensive labor shifted almost all production to China, which produces around 95% of rare earth metals today [2]. Under the pretense of environmental protection, China has, in recent years, posed export quotas on rare earth elements, driving up prices for foreign countries, while failing to set limits on production for domestic use. [1]

In response to these recent spikes in prices, other countries have been seeking to spark domestic production of rare earth elements and finally end China’s stranglehold on an industry so key to military and high-tech manufacturing. The price increase has suddenly given companies an incentive to seek new reserves of rare earths and begin extraction.

Molycorp Minerals recently reopened the Mountain Pass mine in southern California with the goal of producing 40,000 tons of rare-earth ore annually. The corporation has even built an on-site natural gas plant to generate clean electricity for processing and will recycle mining wastewater to help meet environmental standards. However, it is currently unclear whether Molycorp will be able to remain competitive and profitable without breaching the strict environmental regulations. [2] [5]

Meanwhile, Japan has also rushed to reduce its dependence on China, as companies like Honda and Panasonic have been recycling these elements from old electronic devices and car batteries. More recently, just a few days ago, a team of Japanese scientists discovered a new reserve of rare earth metals in mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Not only will these minerals be cheap and easy to mine, according to the team, but they also lie in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone, a boon to a country that has had many recent territorial and economic feuds with China. [4]

Although it will take time for countries like the U.S. and Japan to fully procure the capital, infrastructure, and resources necessary to eat away at China’s current monopoly, it is worth the investment to ensure increased energy independence for the important fields of green technology and high-tech manufacturing, even if it necessitates minor breaches in government environmental policy. The importance of these minerals to the emerging field of green technology was stated best by Terry Tamminen, the former head of California’s environment protection agency: “This is about ensuring the sustainability of sustainability.” [5]

1) http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2013/04/02/chinas-continuing-monopoly-over-rare-earth-minerals

2) http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrybell/2012/04/15/chinas-rare-earth-metals-monopoly-neednt-put-an-electronics-stranglehold-on-america/

3) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/10/19/chinas-chokehold-over-rare-earth-metals-is-slipping/

4) http://green.autoblog.com/2013/04/04/discovery-rare-earth-metals-ocean-mud-japan/

5) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2059636-2,00.html

[Image Credit: http://cdn.gottabemobile.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/rare-earth-elements.jpg]