Too little too late? China’s rare earth threat prompts US action

September 30, 2010 – (Source: Networkworld) – In the face of China wielding menacing control over 97% of the world’s rare earth materials, the US House of Representatives this week passed a bill that would bolster research and development of the key elements and help find substitutions for the materials.

Rare earth metals are used to build everything from wind turbines, hybrid-vehicle batteries, weapons guidance systems, oil refining catalysts, computer disk drives, televisions and monitors, compact fluorescent light bulbs and fiber optic cable.

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 Rare earth materials are used in many applications for their magnetic and other distinctive properties and include 17 elements with names such as lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, yttrium and scandium. A lack of access to rare earths could severely handicap US manufacturing, impede our ability to transition to a clean-energy economy and threaten our ability to develop superior defense technologies, the House stated.

The US was once the world’s leading supplier of rare earths, it has produced little since the closure of the nation’s only mine, the House stated in a release. In recent years, the US has relied on access to cheap supplies from China. A recent example of the country’s power, it cut of Japan’s access to any rare earth materials because of a flap over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing boat captain whose ship collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels on Sept. 7. Fearing an economic meltdown Japan reportedly settled the situation quickly.

Interestingly, Japanese researchers said this week they had developed a hybrid vehicle motor that is free of rare earths, which is the direction many countries will need to go to help circumvent the power China holds.

According to the US House, China is now rapidly building its own high-technology industries that rely on rare earths. To reduce global competition, China began imposing export quotas in 2006, which have gotten steadily stricter, and pressuring manufacturers seeking access to rare earths to produce their technologies in China. China cut its rare earths exports for the second half of this year by 72%.

In a report on rare earth materials in April, the Government Accountability Office said rebuilding the US rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years and is dependent on several factors, including securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies, and acquiring patents – many of which are currently held by international companies, the GAO stated.

The report went on to say the US has the expertise but lacks the manufacturing facilities to refine oxides to metals. For example, the US is not currently producing neodymium iron boron (NeFeB) permanent magnets used for computer hard drives and cell phones and has only one samarium cobalt (SmCo) magnet producer.  SmCo is used a lot in what’s known as a traveling-wave tube, an electronic device that amplifies radio signals.

The GAO says one existing mine, the Mountain Pass mine in California, could be fully operational by 2012.  Although the Mountain Pass mine is the largest non-Chinese rare earth deposit in the world, the mine currently lacks the manufacturing assets and facilities to process the rare earth ore into finished components, such as permanent magnets. The mine also does not have substantial amounts of heavy rare earth elements, such as dysprosium, which provide much of the heat-resistant qualities of permanent magnets used in many industry and defense applications, the GAO noted.

The GAO report also notes that there is ongoing work within government agencies to at least begin to address the rare earth problem:

The Department of Commerce assembled a roundtable to review government-wide options in addressing potential rare earth shortages.
The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President recently hosted an interagency meeting to discuss rare earth materials supply and demand and plans ongoing interagency coordination on the issue.
The Department of Energy reported that it has several research and development efforts to develop non-rare-earth material-dependent motors, reduced rare earth material usage in magnets, and alternatives to rare earth dependent wind generators. In addition, the department recently announced that it will develop a strategic plan for addressing the role of rare earth and other strategic materials in clean energy technologies.
The bill, H.R. 6160: Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010, still needs to be voted on by the Senate and with elections coming up who knows when or if this bill will get to the president. 

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