There’s nothing “rare” about rare earth minerals that go into smartphones, computers and military tech - they’re present in abundance in US, however mining these is tricky due to environmental regulations and restrictions related to exploring near national parks and reserves.
2. Experts have been nervous about the US supply of “rare earth” (again, the term is a misnomer as these are available in abundance in earth’s crust) elements since the only American refinery went bankrupt in 2015; now the Pentagon is working with Australia 🇦🇺 to bolster supply.
3. Last year China produced 78% of the world’s so-called “rare earths”. As the US trade war with China continues to escalate, the threats from China have shifted to critical minerals imported to US from China, which have the potential to cripple US military development.
4. Magnets made from Chinese “rare earths” are used in F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s answer to a one-size-fits-all warplane. In 2014, the Pentagon waived laws banning Chinese-built components on US military weapons.
5. US was once the largest producer of rare earths in the world. At the Mountain Pass Mine in California, starting in the 1960s, “rare earths” mined there were also used in color TVs, medical scanners, lasers, fluorescent lights and microchips.
6. In 1980, a classification exercise of “rare earths” had catastrophic consequences for US rare earth mining: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Regulatory Agency placed “rare earth” mining under the same regulations as mining thorium, a radioactive element.
7. New, onerous regulations on thorium made the mining and refining of thorium-bearing rare earth elements in the US risky. Over the next two decades, the US rare earth mining industry collapsed while the Chinese filled the void left by US rare earth mining with gusto.
8. While “rare earth” elements are abundant in the earth’s crust, the refining process involves a series of acid baths and unhealthy doses of radiation - one of the reasons that countries like the US have been more or less happy to cede production of rare earths to China.
8. China established the world’s largest rare earth research facility and filed the first rare earth patent in 1983 and over the next 14 years filed more patents than US, which had been working on them since 1950; China also acquired US technology in metals, alloys, and magnets.
9. In 2010, China 🇨🇳 stopped exports of “rare earths” to Japan 🇯🇵 following a diplomatic incident involving the disputed Senkaku Islands. But Chinese smugglers continued to export “rare earths” and production in other parts of the world ramped up to help Japan compensate.
10. In the event of a Chinese ban on exporting “rare earth’s” to US, one of the most important backstops would be ye ol’ Mountain Pass mine. Although the mine was closed after Chinese “rare earths” drove down prices, the facility is intact and resumed production last January.
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