Are Rare Earth Metals a National Security Issue?
June 20, 2013
Currently there is a legislative proposal before the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to encourage the U.S. Department of Defense to buy up volumes of strategic rare earth elements. According to Canadian rare earth minerals producer Ucore Rare Metals, the legislation calls for the U.S. government to spend $41 million to stockpile six critical metals, including dysprosium and yttrium.
The 17 so-called rare earth minerals, e.g., the lanthanides, scandium, and yttrium, as well as associated metals molybdenum and tungsten, are needed in the production of items such as cell phones, other popular consumer electronics, and batteries -- as well as in electronics governing defense systems and missiles.
According to a report from IHS Chemical, in Houston, production and consumption of rare earth minerals totaled over 100,000 metric tons in 2012. IHS’s study estimates that from 2012 to 2017, global demand for rare earth products will grow by 7.6 percent annually and reach more than 150,000 metric tons, with China leading consumption growth at 8.3 percent annually.
Contrary to the term, rare earths are actually abundant -- far more than silver and gold. Australia, the U.S., and other have nations have reserves. But world production is predominantly controlled by China -- and now some are saying it is a national security issue for the U.S.
Access to rare earth elements has been a geopolitical hot button. China’s price undercutting in the 1990s has led to the discontinuance of extraction in other countries. China now controls about 95 percent of world rare earths volume, despite having just over 20 percent of the world’s proven reserves.
In January Rare Earth Investing News reported that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) allocated up to $120 million “for the creation of a rare earths research facility aimed at decreasing the nation’s dependence on rare earth elements from China. Called the Critical Materials Institute, its aim is to “bring together leading researchers from academia, the private sector, and four DOE national laboratories.”
The objective is to ensure a steady, dependable rare earths supply for domestic needs. But until that occurs, the federal government is seeking other methods of ensuring supply, hence the House legislation.
Manufacturers, however, don’t appear to be feeling a rare earth minerals supply pinch. In May 2012, when the World Trade Organization was pressured to open a case against China for unfair trade practices that tightened rare earth metals supply, The Wall Street Journal reported that much of China’s export quota was going unused due to a drop in worldwide demand.
“Only about half of last year's 30,184-ton quota was used,” WSJ reported, citing Beijing-based rare-earth consulting firm Baichuan Information. The outlet added that “major rare-earth exports in March this year fell more than 70 percent compared with a year earlier.”
That’s not to say there could not be supply problems if geopolitical winds shift. In 2010 Forbes noted that China enacted a low-key rare-earth metals embargo against the U.S. as part of a tiff over green energy concerns, writing that “the losers include the manufacturers who rely on rare earths. In the U.S., those are primarily makers of catalytic converters, along with the metal-alloying and ceramic-making sectors.”
Manufacturers that depend on rare earth elements thus could potentially be the victims of trade tussles. The national security initiative to stockpile six rare earth minerals could become beneficial at such a time.
But as Gareth Hatch, a rare earth expert and co-founder of Technology Metals Research, told The Financialist in April, “The probability of (supply) disruption is probably fairly low.”
Still, while there are R&D possibilities for rare earth replacements that render the minerals unnecessary in some applications, manufacturers will be monitoring geopolitics and trade issues with an eye toward rare earth metals supply ramifications.