Recently economist Paul Krugman complained that “China accounts for 97 percent of the world’s supply of minerals that play an essential role in many high-tech products, including military equipment.” He was writing about Rare Earth Elements (REE). There are 17 naturally occurring rare earth elements: yttrium, scandium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Not very familiar to most people, but they are used by us all every day. Some uses include liquid-crystal displays on computer monitors and televisions, fiber optic cables, magnets, glass polishing, DVD and USB drives in the computer, catalytic converters, and petroleum cracking catalysts, batteries (the Prius uses 10 pounds of lanthanum), fluorescent lights, missiles, jet engines, and satellites. In other words, these elements are critical to our high-technology world.
Despite the name “rare earths” the more common REE are each similar in crustal abundance to commonplace metals such as chromium, nickel, copper, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, or lead , but they rarely occur in economic concentrations, and that’s the problem.
The U.S. used to be self-sufficient in REE mined from one deposit, Mountain Pass in the Mojave desert, California, just west of Las Vegas, Nevada. That mine, a carbonatite intrusion with extraordinary contents of light REE (8 to 12% rare earth oxides) was discovered in 1949 and began production in 1952. Mining ceased in 2002 due to low prices and some environmental regulatory trouble triggered by a tailings spill. Some REE are still produced by processing stockpiles. Mountain Pass may resume mining next year.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, several other rare earth prospects in the U.S. are being explored: Bear Lodge in Wyoming; Diamond Creek in Idaho; Elk Creek in Nebraska; and Lemhi Pass in Idaho-Montana. Others sources that may come on line soon are Hoidas Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada; Nechalacho (Thor Lake) in Northwest Territories, Canada; Kangankunde in Malawi; and the Nolans Project in Northern Territory, Australia. At the Mount Weld rare-earth deposit in Australia, the initial phase of mining of the open pit was completed in June 2008.
For the time being, however, China controls the supply of vital minerals resources.
For more information see: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2002/fs087-02/fs087-02.pdf
UPDATE: See a story in the Atlantic: Chinese Rare Earth Embargo Spreads and