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Chinese Rare Earth Mining Monopoly Threatens US Defense Technology

By Jen Alic | Tue, 13 November 2012 23:34 | 2

Technology that drives the Pentagon’s weapons program, the US auto industry and renewable energy ambitions is threatened by a lack of heavy rare earths for which China enjoys the global mining monopoly.

Heavy rare earths are a class of 17 elements of a similar chemistry that are used in the production of everything from unnamed military drones, radar and navigation systems to high-performance magnets used in commercial vehicles, wind turbine technology and a host of consumer electronics.

The Pentagon was caught napping in 2010, when the reality of China’s global monopoly on heavy rare earths mining hit home with Beijing’s decision to reduce exports. The resultant scramble for these precious chemical elements has led the Pentagon to team up with Toyota Motor Corp and two Canadian companies--Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (UCU) and Matamec Explorations Inc. (MAT)--to develop North American mines.

Rumor has it that the Pentagon has entered into an exploratory partnership with Ucore. It has also struck deals with two North American magnet makers to study rare earths applications.

As for the auto industry, the situation is rather urgent. Car makers build rare earth metals into hybrid vehicles, and also into conventional cars for catalytic converters.

Related Article: Recycling Magnets to Extract the Rare Earth Metals

With the current consumption rates, demand for key rare earths elements—dysprosium, yttrium and terbium—will exceed supply very soon. Consumption continues to grow while production remains unchanged. Much of that consumption is represented by the automotive, aerospace and consumer electronics industries. 

Toyota is working its way towards owning a 49% stake in a venture with Canada’s Matamec, and the two plan to mine a light rare earth element called dysprosium in Quebec, but are eyeing other potential elements in the area as well. (Toyotsu Rare Earth Canada has so far paid two installments of $8.5 million and $1.1 million to Matamec.)

These rare earths are even more valuable since China slashed exports. Still, prices have been up and down since then, most likely because manufacturers are wary of committing to production that depends on rare earths when they’re not sure supply will be there. 

Will these North American forces be able to challenge China’s global monopoly, which essentially supplies 95% of the world’s rare earths demand?

Related Article: Are Rare Earth Metal Prices About To Rise?

There are only perhaps 5 or 6 rare earths mines in the entire world with enough developed reserves for viable production. To get to that stage we’re talking about hundreds of millions in funding.

Alaska is one focal point in this scramble to out-do China. Experts believe that Alaska’s Bokan Mountain deposit, run by Ucore, may have the capacity to produce 3,000 tons/year of rare earths by 2016. Of course, first the mine needs to be built ($150 million), and Ucore is hoping that the State of Alaska will help foot the bill. 

Not only are they hoping to out-do China in rare earths mining: They are hoping that China will actually become an importer of North American rare earths. The reasoning behind this: China’s own consumption is increasing and the fact that it hasn’t discovered any new deposits means that at the current pace, it could easily use up its own supplies.

In the meantime, the scramble is picking up intensity. In October and November, China halted around 50% of its rare-earths smelting capacity in an attempt to get prices back up. Leading Chinese rare earths producers—Chinalco and Baotou Steel Rare Earth--halted production temporarily in early November.

By. Jen Alic of Oilprice.com

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Jen Alic
Company: ISA Intel

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  • WAtt4Bob on November 14 2012 said:
    The US has a long history of ignoring Africa, and/or taking it for granted.

    The Chinese have long been engaged and helpful, and they extract mineral rights agreements on the cheap-and-friendly via that engagement.

    The Chinese treat Africa in much the same way we treat Mexico, as a sort of inexpensive neighborhood bodega.

    They built a railroad in Madagascar by shipping them one their own worn-out railroads, lock stock and barrel, and Madagascar is happy to have it.

    The US has been busy ignoring the strategic importance of Africa while the Chinese have been busy filling the continent with mom-and-pop small businesses owned and operated by Chinese.

    All of this is financed by Wal-Mart shoppers.
  • Timothy Gawne on November 14 2012 said:
    Indeed, you make an excellent point. Why isn't our government worried about this?

    I suggest that this is a symptom of a larger rot. The elites in this country simply no longer care. They are 'multinational', and see the United States as just a patch of land to loot before it gets sucked dry. After all, it was the elites that sent all of our industry to China in the first place, right? As long as they get their big profits now, the long-term consequences for the United States are not an issue.

    In parallel, our elites are increasingly financial. They make money by gambling in a casino, tapping the US treasury to cover their losses. They don't care about the grubby business of making things or providing services, and increasingly, they are insulated from failure. No matter what they do they will always come up with ever more money. So they just don't care, it's not on their radar screen.

    Thank you for your consideration.

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