Dr. Brian Blodgett
“Rare-earth minerals are essential to everything from cellphones to hybrid cars. China’s got them and could use them as leverage in the trade war with the U.S.,” NPR’s Meghna Chakrabarti succinctly explained.
Despite their name, rare-earth elements are not very rare. In fact, the 17 known rare-earth elements, all metals, are more common than precious metals. The two rarest, thulium and lutetium, are 200 times more common than gold.
So why are they called rare? They got that designation because of the difficulty of finding them in concentrations large enough to make them worth exploiting. Also, they require a lot of energy to extract from the other minerals they are found with and to process them.
Each month, the United States mines between 3,300 and 4,400 tons of lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium.
But, as Stephen Bryen wrote in the Asia Times, China produces about 97 percent of rare-earth ore.
Why Does the US Need Rare-Earth Elements for Homeland Security?
Rare-earth elements are often added in very small amounts to composites that allow them to interact and produce results that neither element could do on their own. An example of rare-earth elements mixing with other alloys to form key ingredients is our military vehicles’ impact-shattering protective armor. Rare-earth elements are vital components in our nation’s next generation weapons and are already a key component in:
- Jet-engine coatings
- Night-vision goggles
- Precision-guided weapons
- Communications equipment
- Laser finders and laser targeting
- Guidance systems
- Radar and sonar sensors
- Amplifiers in fiber-optic data transmitters
- Permanent magnets in the F-22 tail fins and rudders
- Predator drones
- Tomahawk cruise missiles
- “White noise” stealth technology
While the amount of rare-earth elements needed for our national defense systems is small in some cases, the amount is rather large in other products. For example:
- Virginia-class nuclear submarines – 9,200 pounds
- Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers – 5,200 pounds
- F-35 Joint Strike Fighters – 920 pounds
With the U.S. having 14 Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers either already under construction or on order, and 2,663 F-35s in the production pipeline, the availability of rare-earth elements is critical to the nation’s defense.
As Bryen noted, however, “As matters now stand, the U.S. and its top Asian allies are totally dependent on China for rare-earth metals and products, a dangerous situation impacting both national security and competitiveness, even halting the emerging battery-powered car market that depends on rare-earth materials.”
Why the Concern about Rare-Earth Elements?
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States led the world in rare-earth elements production. Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave Desert was the largest source of rare-earth elements in the nation. However, after radioactive wastewater from Mountain Pass flooded the nearby Ivanpah Dry Lake causing an environmental disaster, the mine halted chemical processing and closed in 2002.
Although other U.S. mines may contain rare-earth metals, they are not found in large quantities and would need extensive processing. In 1980, “the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the International Regulatory Agency placed rare-earth mining under the same regulations as mining thorium – a radioactive element that drops out when processing heavy rare-earth minerals.”
That made the mining and refining of rare-earth elements more costly because mining companies now had to follow the new strict regulations whereas they used to extract the rare-earth elements as byproducts and make extra profits. As a result, mining companies stopped trying to separate the rare-earth elements and instead buried them as waste.
The new regulations had a large impact on the production of rare-earth elements. As National Defense magazine noted, out of more than 400 rare-earth startups publicly listed in 2012, fewer than five reached the production stage and only two were able to produce significant amounts of rare-earth elements. Of those two, one went bankrupt and was resurrected with Chinese financing but is no longer active and the other lost its operating permit.
Today, the only active rare-earth element processing plant outside China is Lynas Corp., an Australian company that operates a processing plant in Malaysia which is facing regulatory issues with the Malaysian government. However, according to Reuters, “Lynas said it intends to build an initial ore processing plant in Western Australia that would help it overcome political headwinds in Malaysia.”
Lynas Corp. recently agreed to partner with Blue Line Corp., a Texas-based chemical company, to “see that US companies have continued access to rare-earth products by offering a US-based source.” Additionally, Mountain Pass is planning to open a processing plant in 2020.
China is an International Regulatory Agency observer but not a signatory to IRA agreements. As a result, almost every non-Chinese rare-earth mine ships its concentrates to China for processing into rare-earth metals, alloys, magnets and other high-volume materials.
Although U.S. mining companies extract large amounts of rare-earth metals, enough to meet up to 85 percent of the world’s demand, according to Mining Magazine, the new regulations “make it uneconomical to mine.” As a result, the U.S. is unable to process any rare-earth elements. This means that our national security is totally dependent on China for rare-earth elements; something that few U.S. policymakers are aware of and a situation for which the nation has no contingency plan.
China Steps in to Fill the Rare-Earth Minerals Void Left by the US
China quickly became the world’s largest producer of rare-earth elements by mining the Bayan Obo mines that contained an estimated 70% of the world’s rare-earth reserves. In fact, most of the rare-earth elements are not in our nation’s strategic reserve in any form that our defense industry can use.
Between 1994 and 1998, the U.S. National Defense Stockpile sold off its entire strategic reserve of rare-earth elements. Any mined rare-earth elements needed to go through China for processing. All of the alloys and magnets that our defense contractors use can be traced back to China’s processing.
China was not content with having the only processor; less than two years ago, China also held at least 23,000 more rare-earth patent filings than the United States. Additionally, since 2011, China has filed more rare-earth element patents than the rest of the world combined. If this trend continues, within two years China will have more rare-earth element patents than the entire world combined.
The Mountain Pass mine reopened in 2017 and is again extracting rare-earth elements. But there are no processing sites in the U.S., so the mine ships its rare-earth concentrates to China for refining. After refining, the processed rare-earth elements return to the United States.
The U.S. government has long been aware of its dependency on China for rare-earth elements, but Washington has failed to address the issue. In 2016, the Government Accountability Office, in a Report to Congressional Committees on Rare-earth Materials, determined that the Department of Defense did not have a comprehensive, department-wide approach to identifying which rare-earth elements the DOD considered critical.
Of the 17 rare-earth elements, 15 were considered critical by at least one of the three DOD offices: Acquisition, Technology and Logistics; Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy; and Defense Logistics Agency-Strategic Materials. Only two of the 15 elements, yttrium and erbium, were identified by all three offices as being critical.
Furthermore, the GAO report found that the DOD “depends on rare-earth materials (rare earths) to provide functionality in weapon systems components. Many steps in the rare earths supply chain, such as mining and refining the ore, are primarily conducted outside the United States, which may pose risks to continued availability of these materials to DOD.”
As a result of the report, the GAO recommended that the Secretary of Defense determine which rare-earths are critical to national security and analyze the effects of their unavailability.
What Is Next for Rare-Earth Mining?
With no domestic rare-earth processors, the United States currently relies on China for approximately 78 percent of its rare-earth materials. The remaining materials come from Estonia, France, Japan and other countries. Even these imports, however, must pass through China for rare-earth processing.
With U.S.-China trade embargoes in place and China’s recent hints that it might cut off the U.S. from its rare-earth elements trade, it is time to seriously consider processing our own rare-earth elements again. While processing plants cannot be planned and constructed as quickly as we might need them, it is time that we cease being dependent on other nations and fast-track the construction of our own rare-earth refining facilities.
Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He is a Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University