Map: NASA, public domain.
Good Thing "Rare Earths" Aren't That Rare...
They say that in life, timing is everything. It's now starting to look like the re-opening of the Mountain Pass rare earths mine in California has excellent timing. During the past decade, China has dominated the market as a supplier of rare earth elements, which are minerals necessary to make all kinds of high-tech things, including wind turbines and electric cars. But lately, China has been sending protectionist signals about that industry, and it has even temporarily blocked rare earth exports to Japan for a while. Now Chinese officials are saying that export quotas are going to be cut by 10% in 2011.
Photo: USGS, Public domain
This makes other suppliers - most of which are relatively very small - all the more crucial. The Californian mine will probably ramp up production as quickly as possible on fears that China will further cut exports, and some Australian mines will no doubt do the same. Let's just hope it won't increase the price of "green" technologies and slow down their adoption...
What are rare earths?
- Despite their name, rare earths are not particularly rare
- The term refers to 17 elements, most of which are fairly abundant in nature
- Rare earths are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table: scandium, yttrium, and some fifteen lanthanides
- Some are as common as copper or zinc, while even the rarest occur in greater quantities than gold or platinum
- They are essential in the manufacture of many electronic goods
One potential benefit of this supply squeeze is that it might make manufacturer find new ways to make things like LCD screens use fewer or none of certain rare earth elements. That could have a beneficial environmental impact.
More on Mining
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China Tightens Grasp on Rare Earth Metals Vital for Green Technologies
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China Bans Rare Earth Sales To Japan; Japan Starts Serious Recycling