U.S. urged to mine ‘rare earth’ minerals for high-tech devices

China dominates market in obscure metals

Josh Brown
The Washington Times

It is time for the U.S. to stop panicking and start mining in the face of a possible shortage of “rare earth” mineral supplies from China, which dominates the global supply for the obscure minerals critical to the modern high-tech economy, according to market analysts and a growing number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“The first step in the supply chain is the mining,” said Jack Lifton, a founding principal of Technology Metals Research LLC, an Illinois-based research firm that tracks the rare earths market. “The United States should develop immediately what it does have. Stop looking already. Start producing the stuff, [and] stop talking about it.”

More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced in Congress to survey U.S. rare earth stocks and encourage domestic production, though none has made it into law.

So-called rare earth elements reside in the obscure far reaches of the periodic table, but the little-known materials such as cerium, yttrium and praseodymium are front and center in a broad range of sophisticated industrial and defense uses, including cellphones, pollution control devices, medical tissue research and laser pointers.

Although it has only 30 percent of the world’s estimated deposits, China supplies more than 95 percent of the global market for the 17 rare earth minerals and has been steadily dropping its export quotas in recent years. That dominance was worrying many before Beijing abruptly “suspended” exports to Japan last fall in the middle of an unrelated territorial dispute.

China in 2010 exported 32,000 tons of rare earth materials, even though international demand was estimated at 55,000 tons. With demand expected to rise again this year, China’s quota has fallen to 25,000 tons, and prices for many rare earth minerals are soaring.

Those moves have helped jump-start a black market for illegal mining of the rare earth materials, as well as proposals to stockpile the strategic material in Japan and the United States. More than a half-dozen bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill to deal with the problems of supply and demand…

Read the entire article at The Washington Times.

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