June 7, 2019

Rare Earths

”Chinese state media is now suggesting that rare earth (17 elements that serve as key components in devices ranging from defense weapons, lasers, hi-tech smartphones and cameras to flat-screen televisions and computers) exports to the US could be cut in retaliation for American measures sparking fear among manufacturers.  If Beijing chooses to make good on these threats, the impact on US manufacturers could be disastrous”.

Rare earths are present and critical in such vital items as cell phones, computers, night vision goggles, lasers, weapons guidance systems, and hybrid batteries.  Needless to say, a very important category of materials that seems to be something hiding under today’s headlines.

The quotes above came from a recent article.  We heard this news and have had a long-standing interest in the rare earth subject.  Rare earths are one of possibly several strategic categories that could be critical levers in our recent trade negotiations.  We suggest you listen for rare earth news; obviously if they are involved in your products or those of your customers.

“China could shut down nearly every automobile, computer, smartphone and aircraft assembly line outside of China if they chose to embargo these materials,” James Kennedy, president of ThREE Consulting, wrote last week in National Defense, a US industry publication.

Periodic Table
Rare Element Resources

For decades the USA was the world’s primary supplier of rare earths, mostly from the Mountain Pass mine in California.  These materials are really not rare, but are rarely present in quantities economic to mine.  The mining is also environmentally unfriendly.

As technology has added innumerable new electronic devices, the value of these rare earth materials has become progressively more important and apparently present in many of our critical defense products.  One wonders, then, how the global supply has been allowed to escape from the US.

Molycorp, the owner of The Mountain Pass mine, went bankrupt a few years ago, and the mine ceased operations.  Thus, in 2017, the United States produced no rare earths at all.  However, the significance of the Mountain Pass facility was not forgotten, and fortunately, it was purchased in 2017 by MP Minerals, an entity with a Chinese minority share.  Mountain Pass is now back in operation.  It is the only US source of rare earths.

China is the primary global supplier of these materials, producing 120,000 tons in 2018.  The US (Mountain Pass) was #3 in 2018, producing 15,000 tons.  Australia is #2, with 20,000 2018 tons.  The US imports most of its rare earth requirements, obviously mostly from China.  Hence the strategic issue.

You can find articles on rare earths on our website.

60 Minutes had an excellent segment that provides a good basic education on the 2016 state of rare earths.

We claim no expertise on this subject.  It just appears to be one of those generally unknown areas of great strategic importance, and especially to manufacturing!  Please contribute to our blog if you have more information.

About the author 

Charlie Harte

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