jordy lee is a program manager at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
Published July 26, 2021
You may not know what “rare earths” are, but you probably know they’re important. Indeed, over the last year, rare earths — which are elements, as in carbon or iron — have been the focus of presidential executive orders, Defense Department intervention and geopolitical tension with China. With a moniker that sounds like something engineered to kill Superman, it’s easy to imagine that rare earths are both exotic and important, which in many ways they are. They are nearly indispensable in manufacturing high-tech wonders ranging from electric vehicles to wind turbines to advanced aircraft, so reliable access to rare earths at reasonable cost is critical to America’s security and prosperity.
Yet, while they’ve become a bit of a buzzword in tech policy circles, the issues surrounding rare earth access are not widely understood. And, after decades of neglect, America is finally confronting the problematic consequences of allowing ideological distaste for “industrial policy” to trump common sense.
In their natural state, rare earths often show up as uniform rocks, which then must be separated into multiple rare earth compounds — a process that can be technically challenging and expensive.
So, What Are Rare Earths?
Although they are often referred to as a group, rare earths are actually 17 individual elements from the periodic table — yes, that chart from high school chemistry — which have distinct uses and levels of importance. They are comprised of the 15 “lanthanide” elements (all metals with similar chemical properties that form pale-colored compounds), plus yttrium and scandium.
Their exotic names are largely the result of the colorful circumstances of their discovery, but can also make discussions about their uses and production confusing. As chemists will happily inform you, even the name “rare earths’’ is a misnomer, as some rare earths are relatively common in the earth’s crust. Cerium, for example, is the 29th most abundant element — three times more abundant than lead.
The name actually reflects the excitement 18th- and 19th-century chemists felt when experimenting with some unique rock compounds found in Scandinavia. They were “rare” because they had never been seen before, and the term “earths’’ was an early technical term — an archaic word for materials that are soluble in acid, and thus stable as oxide compounds, like most of the minerals in the earth’s crust.
Adding to general confusion today, scientists in the 19th century were quick to take credit for any discovery (or rediscovery) they made. This led to rare earth elements being frequently renamed — and to a lot of backtracking as separation techniques became better and new sources were found.
Consider this example. For some reason, contemporary chemists thought it would be easiest to name four newly discovered rare earths simply by rearranging some letters when they found out that ytterbite, the original rare earth mineral identified in 1878 near Ytterby, Sweden, was actually made up of multiple rare earth elements. This is how we got the incredible word salad of yttrium, ytterbium, terbium and erbium. (Too bad Gilbert and Sullivan weren’t around to compose some lyrics around the list.)
When combined with other rare earth elements being named after obscure Greek gods (cerium, from Ceres, the Greek goddess of fertility), chemists being too clever by half (lanthanum is from a Greek word meaning, “I am hidden”), a scientist honoring the twins he had out of wedlock (didymium from didymos, meaning twin in Greek), and then some of those discoveries having to be renamed when shown to not be discoveries at all, it’s no wonder you’ve almost stopped reading.
Consider, too, that the rare earths are relatively difficult to discuss collectively in the context of mining and processing. In their natural state, they often show up as uniform rocks, which then must be separated into multiple rare earth compounds — a process that can be technically challenging and expensive. To add to the cascade of complications, rare earths do not consistently occur in the same region. Typically, only a handful out of the 17 are present in the ore from a single site. Cerium, for example, is found all over the place, but you might have to go to Malaysia if you are lusting for lutetium.
This can make it difficult to formulate a single policy strategy regarding mining and processing, since increasing the production of “rare earths” isn’t as simple as gearing up production at one mine in a friendly country and figuring out how to mitigate the health, safety and environmental issues that follow. Moreover, some especially useful rare earths show up in low concentrations (8 percent of the volume of ore is considered high) — implying that production inevitably generates a lot of waste.
What Are Rare Earths Good For?
In the late 1800s, Carl Auer von Welsbach noticed that heating rare earth elements made them glow. He became the first person to develop a commercial use for rare earths by using them in a new type of lamp. The rare earth waste from these lamps tended to catch fire, which Welsbach found fascinating, and led him to create the alloy ferrocerium, which is composed of iron and a handful of rare earths. Ferrocerium is still produced today and is commonly known as flint, which creates the spark in most lighters.
This unexpected use of rare earths in a technology that billions of people take for granted is par for the course. Rare earths have a way of yielding unanticipated uses.
For example, europium bestowed the color red to phosphorescent TV screens and was very commonly produced for that purpose during the 70s and 80s. Rare earths have since given us better magnets, better audio headphones, computer hard drives, flat screens, and other modern technologies that have gotten smaller, lighter and more efficient over the years. Other rare earths have proved essential for making lasers, satellites, superconductors and a variety of specialized alloys valued by engineers.
Yet, despite these vital uses, some of them military in nature — building an F-35 Lightning fighter jet requires 920 pounds of rare earths — the U.S. mining and processing in-dustries were allowed to collapse two decades ago. Today, 90 percent of global rare earth production is in China.
Initially, this didn’t raise warning flags. For one thing, China was forced to bear the sub-stantial pollution burden from rare earth mining and refining. But the relocation of the industry fit well into China’s longterm geo-political strategy. Beijing has begun flexing its muscles, experimenting with quotas, licenses and taxes as leverage to get its way globally. Now, the United States is worried.
How Did the U.S. Get So Far Behind?
The United States actually started very much ahead; it was the first nation to figure out how to separate rare earths in industrial-scale quantities. Indeed, the modern history of the rare earth industry began quite dramatically in the form of the Manhattan Project. Chemists working on the construction of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos were having a hard time removing traces of rare earths naturally found with uranium, which threatened to interfere with both trigger mechanisms and nuclear chain reactions.
Separating out rare earths proved to be notoriously difficult. The Manhattan Project eventually sought help from Frank Spedding, a chemist at Iowa State University at Ames, who helped come up with a revolutionary way — known as ion exchange, or the Ames Process — to manage the task. The Ames Laboratory was established shortly after World War II, and the lab began refining the purest rare earth metals in the world in partnership with the Mountain Pass Mine in California. Mountain Pass subsequently began producing in commercial quantities, reducing the costs of rare earths by an order of magnitude. This opened the door to scientists eager to experiment with the weird, quirky elements that were finally available in the quantities needed for chemistry and physics research.
Letting an Industry Die
From the mid-1960s to the 1980s, the United States saw large increases in governmentfunded research in rare earths along with big increases in output. Pound-for-pound, magnets made from rare earth alloys were stronger than any previously made, which made it possible to build lightweight computer hard drives and audio speakers that were key to enabling today’s portable electronics industries.
But with the Cold War over, and with the world entering an era of supply-chain-driven international trade, Washington began to reexamine the rationale for supporting rare earth production. By this point, U.S. mines were competing with rare earth mines elsewhere that operated at lower cost. On top of that, environmentalists became increasing vocal about the damage wrought by mining, and their complaints were well founded. Mining in general has a sometimes-scandalous history of environmental degradation, and the Mountain Pass open pit rare earths mine (an hour’s drive from Las Vegas) was no exception.
Indeed, rare earth mining is especially problematic, because many rare earths come from ores that also contain radioactive uranium and thorium. Mining and processing are thus hazardous, and the tailings constitute a significant long-term environmental risk.
Icing this poisonous cake, accidents will happen. In 1996, some 300,000 gallons of mildly radioactive liquid waste from the Mountain Pass Mine were spilled into California’s pristine Mohave National Preserve. The owners of Mountain Pass agreed to clean up the spill, but subsequently spent months disagreeing with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management about the methods and extent of the cleanup.
Other regulatory and environmental issues plagued the site for decades before and after the spill, and the United States Geological Survey reminds us that the production at Mountain Pass mine in California “started before the era of major environmental regulatory oversight.” Moreover, the Geological Survey concluded that the potential environmental damage from new rare earth mines is not well understood because no one bothered to keep track back then.
In the 1990s, with the Cold War over, national security no longer had unquestioned priority over potential environmental degradation. However, instead of joining with the mining and processing industries to make production cleaner (while keeping processing cheap enough to allow it to compete in global markets), Washington washed its hands of the issue.
Legislation mandating research, production and stockpiling of strategic metals, including rare earths, was weakened or allowed to expire. Even the U.S. Bureau of Mines, the agency long in charge of mining, was abolished in 1996, with its responsibilities spread among a dozen other federal agencies.
In 2002, the Mountain Pass Mine, which had ceased to be economically viable, closed. By that time, China had little competition in mining and none in processing.
Rare Earths Centerstage Again
The loss of a domestic rare earth industry was largely ignored when it happened. But America was not the only country that had backed away from mining the elements. Many others had followed the United States’ example and found themselves dependent on China for rare earths. As rare earths became increasingly important for electronics, it was just a matter of time until the linkage between access and economic security became evident.
As demand continued to grow in the early 2000s, prices crept up. Many countries began to get nervous about China’s potential to become the OPEC of rare earths. Molycorp, the owner of Mountain Pass Mine in California, along with 70-plus other companies in the mining business in the United States, Canada, South Africa and other nations, began looking into opening rare earth mines in response to surging demand and geopolitical tensions.
Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty Images
To avoid the sorts of problems that tarnished Mountain Pass’ reputation, Molycorp designed a way to recycle wastewater and limit environmental concerns. It began to beat the drums about the importance of undercutting China’s global dominance and looked to raise $500 million to reopen an expanded version of the Mountain Pass Mine under the auspicious name “Project Phoenix.” Some analysts were skeptical that Mountain Pass could penetrate markets firmly dominated by subsidized Chinese materials, but Molycorp never wavered. The company claimed that “the pricing of rare earths doesn’t make sense” and that it was prepared to overcome the barriers to entry.
Elsewhere, nervousness over China’s hammerlock on the industry led South Korea to plan to stockpile 76,000 tons of rare earths. The Koreans were heavily reliant on rare earths for many exports and worried that China would use its dominance to blackmail South Korea into putting some distance between its foreign policy and that of China’s geopolitical rivals. Even Sweden has declared rare earth projects to be of “national interest.” With the world awake to the issue and China becoming increasing assertive in its demands for hegemony over East Asia, it appeared China would finally get a run for its money in rare earths.
What Went Wrong?
At the height of rare earth enthusiasm, after companies had announced their stockpiling and mining plans, China reminded one and all of the risks of leaving the dirty work to the Middle Kingdom. When, in 2010, Japan detained the captain of a Chinese fishing boat that was operating in disputed waters, China retaliated by halting exports of rare earths to Japan. China denies this was a formal embargo. But whatever one called it, the retaliation did temporarily reduce the supply of rare earths outside of China.
Japan subsequently released the fishing boat captain, but world markets were not about to quickly forget what had happened. Rare earth prices soared. With prices inflated, Molycorp (and thus the U.S.) became competitive in global markets.
But China was not willing to share the market for long. When it subsequently decided to pour supply into the market, prices did fall. Many of the mining companies outside China that had been planning to plow through environmental opposition to develop rare earth deposits now faced an uncertain future.
Note a few, often ignored complexities to the rare earths market during the boom. For one thing, private Chinese suppliers of rare earths proved to be difficult to control, even for Beijing. The export quotas that China had imposed didn’t apply to downstream products — processed rare earths — thereby leaving a large loophole. For another, smuggling proved irresistible in a global market with sky-high prices; by some estimates illegal mining added an estimated 40 percent to Chinese production.
As might be expected, the demand for rare earths was also somewhat elastic with respect to price. Some companies that used rare earths in industrial processes found ways to wring more value from a given quantity; others, seeking to end their exposure to the volatility of the rare earths markets, found acceptable substitutes. Meanwhile, Molycorp, the owner of the giant Mountain Pass Mine, slipped under the wheels of the Chinese juggernaut, going bankrupt in 2015.
China Maintains Control
China has crafted numerous initiatives that are specifically designed to control mineral and metals supply chains. This was first seen with their Going Out Policy, by which China invested heavily abroad (mostly in poor countries) in order to control access to materials seen as key to its growth. After many countries began to show resolve to develop their own mineral assets, China shifted tactics through other programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025.
The idea behind these latter programs is that if they can’t directly control the mine sites, they make sure that the minerals end up in China through purchasing agreements, control of processing and control of the market for downstream products. To this end, China not only mines the bulk of the world’s rare earth oxides, but also separates and processes the rare earths that are produced in other nations. The rest of the world just doesn’t have the technical capabilities or infrastructure to manage this final, crucial stage. And that goes for the United States, too, even though (as noted earlier) much of the relevant technology was born in the USA.
The Mountain Pass mine’s checkered history hammers home the point. The mine is once again operational under the ownership of a hedge-fund-controlled group operating under the name MP Materials. But it only produces rare earth concentrate, which gets sent to China. China then separates the rare earths, or makes rare earth products, and sells them back to industrial customers in the U.S.
How the U.S. Compares
There is no realistic scenario in which China will easily lose its status as king of the rare earth hill. It has plenty of raw material accessible at low cost, along with expertise in processing, a comparative disregard for environmental issues and a government openly committed to doing whatever is needed to keep the industry on top of the world market.
For its part, the United States has been relegated to playing catch-up. In 2020, belatedly recognizing rare earths’ strategic importance, the Department of Defense awarded funding to Lynas Rare Earths (an Australian company) and MP Materials to develop rare earth processing capabilities.
But the story reads a bit like The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: Washington suspended the subsidy to MP Materials when it came out that the company was partially owned by a Chinese firm linked closely to Beijing. Plans for a Lynas separation facility in Hondo, Texas, have recently been announced, with $30 million being provided by the DoD. A non-Chinese processing facility for Mountain Pass is also in development with unclear timelines.
The Department of Energy did decide to invest in research in rare earth production in the waning months of the Trump administration. Among other goals: technology to extract rare earths found in low concentrations from unconventional sources. But this is, at best, a baby step; U.S. initiatives do not have consistent themes or clear coordination across industries. Consider, too, that little has been done to reconcile the environmental concerns associated with both rare earth mining and processing. Without a “safe harbor” in terms of acceptable methods of mining and processing the materials, private investors are bound to be wary.
The United States controlled the rare earth industry from the 1950s to the 1980s because it had developed a technical advantage and had yet to focus on the accompanying pollution. That position was ceded long ago to China, which isn’t about to be dislodged. Which leaves us with a question: the United States has stumbled along in this circumstance for three decades — why not stumble along for another three?
What’s new here is, first, proof that China is prepared to use rare earths as a weapon in gaining geopolitical power at the expense of the United States and East Asia, and second, the realization that access to rare earths at reasonable cost will be critical in the transition to renewable energy. Any other superpower in any other era, it is safe to say, would counter China by emulating its state-directed efforts to, at minimum, control access to all materials critical to both defense and prosperity. Such a solution is plainly in reach. But American particularism — in this case, the unwillingness to intercede in the private economy or make tough choices between security and the environment — makes it unclear when or how the United States will get from here to there.