|A future element? Fictional rare earth element known as 'Unobtainium' as dipicted in the movie 'Avatar'.|
"Rare Earth Minerals" are 17 elements located on the periodic table and essential to the production of high-tech gadgets like smart-phones, flat screen televisions, catalytic converters, low-energy light bulbs, wind turbines, and laser devices just to name a few.
The name is a little deceiving because rare earth elements are not exactly "rare." Deposits of most of the elements can be found all across the globe including the continental North America. This term is an archaic name dating back to 1787 when the elements were first discovered. But depending on how one would look at the situation, rare earth elements are very rare indeed and making headlines in world news because 97 percent of the market is controlled by China who recently announced they will cut exports by 70 percent.
If these elements are common throughout the world, why does the U.S. Military pay China for imports to build missiles and radars? First of all, mining for rare earth elements has numerous negative effects on the environment and creates radioactive waste as a byproduct. In the 1980's America led the market in rare elements until 1990 when China flooded the market with super cheap elements mined at huge environmental costs. In 2002 Mountain Pass California, the largest and last of the U.S. element mines was shut down.
|Rare earth elements (Clockwise from top right): Gadolinium, Praseodymium, Cerium, Lanthanum, Neodymium, Samarium.|
A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that developing a domestic supply could take up to 15 years. In an effort to speed up that process a bill has been proposed that would offer federal loan guarantees to mining companies. Analysts expect that Molycorp of the U.S. and Lynas of Australia could bring 60,000 tons to the market by 2015. But what happens until then? Prices of the most sought after elements have spiked and some dealers are reporting that Neodymium (used in computers and lasers) is now impossible to find outside of China.
Finding high concentrations of elements can be problematic to mining operations and start-up costs are in the hundreds of millions. There is also a risk that China could flood the market again with super cheap elements.