Rare earth metals — so called because they are found in such low concentration on the Earth and are, therefore, exceedingly difficult to profitably mine — are required in everything from advanced electric car batteries and motors to new refrigerator technology.
Is the US running headlong into a future where we depend on other countries for a stable supply of this critical resource?
As I discussed in a post late last year, in this transformation from fossil fuel based cars to electric cars over the next 40 years finding stable supplies of rare-earth metals could become the next “oil” battlefield. Even now, China, who controls more than 95% of the world’s rare-earth metal supplies, has started to hoard them — for what reason I don’t know, as other countries have the capability of producing them but simply haven’t because, well, China was doing all the legwork for them. Nonetheless, the issue highlights the importance of having our own guaranteed supply.
In testimony in front of a congressional panel devoted to the topic, renowned rare-earth expert, Karl A. Gschneidner Jr., a senior metallurgist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, has echoed just such a sentiment. “Rare-earth research in the USA on mineral extraction, rare-earth separation, processing of the oxides into metallic alloys and other useful forms, substitution, and recycling is virtually zero,” he told the panel members. “Europe and China are moving rapidly in this area, the USA needs to put together a strong, cohesive effort to retain our disappearing leadership in this technology.”
Let’s hope his voice is heard. Certainly rare-earth metals fall in the category of unsexy and difficult to sell politically, but they are sure to become a major resource issue if we don’t start acting now.
You can read Mr. Gschneider Jr.’s full testimony on the next page.