They are called REEs – “Rare Earth Elements”: A family of 12 silvery metals with highly UNUSUAL physical and chemical properties. They are the critical components of our modern technologies. Everything from X-ray machines, TV screens, MRI scanners, hard disk drives to power tools and electric cars.
REEs are also particularly important in the world’s race to develop new green technologies – such as solar panels and wind turbines.
Despite their name Rare Earths are not particularly rare. The problem is they are ‘dispersed’ – sprinkled across the world in very low concentration, which is an economic nightmare for companies seeking to mine and process REE’s.
China has the world’s largest source – a mine in Baotou, Inner Magnolia. In the 1980’s the US was the world’s largest producer, but since the 1990’s China has flooded the world market with cheap exports.
As Deng Xiaoping said in 1992 “the Middle East has oil, China has rare earths”.
The Mountain Pass mine in the Californian Desert is the sole US source of REEs. But after being mined REEs require special processing, which is done in China because the US cannot currently do that.
Change may be coming. The US has begun efforts to counter China’s dominance of the world market. There are media reports ‘the Pentagon is poised’ to boost facilities at Mountain Pass.