China’s monopoly on 17 key rare elements sets stage for supply crisis
September 1, 2010
(ChattahBox) – China’s monopoly on the global supply of elements critical for production of computer hard disc drives, hybrid-electric cars, military weapons, and other key products and its increasingly strict limits on exports is setting the stage for a crisis in the United States. That’s the topic of the cover story of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), ACS’ weekly newsmagazine.
C&EN Senior Editor Mitch Jacoby and Contributing Editor Jessie Jiang explain that the situation involves a family of chemical elements that may soon start to live up to their name, the “rare earths.” China has virtually cornered the global market on them, and produces most of the world’s supply. Since 2005, China has been raising prices and restricting exports, most recently in 2010, fostering a potential supply crisis in the U.S.
“The situation is nothing short of a crisis,” says Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at Iowa State University’s Ames Laboratory who has been studying rare-earth materials there since the 1960s. “There is nearly zero rare-earth mining, processing, and research going on now in the U.S.,” Gschneidner says. And in large part, the U.S. no longer manufactures rare-earth products, he adds. A small number of U.S. labs, however, and some research institutions outside the U.S. are working to improve industrial methods for processing and recycling rare-earth minerals, and they’re also searching for substitute materials.
The article here describes how the U.S. is now responding to this emerging crisis. To boost supplies, for instance, plans are being developed to resume production at the largest U.S. rare-earth mine Mountain Pass in southern California which has been dormant since 2002. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense are among the government agencies grappling with the problem.