An integral part of that cell phone you can’t live without is neodymium. Neodymium is used in magnets for computers, audio speakers and of course cell phones. Another rare earth mineral, Holmium, has the greatest magnetic strength of any element and is used in medical and dental lasers. In addition, many technologies and US military weaponry rely on a group of these rare earth minerals. So what you may ask? The big deal is that we rely on China for most of these rare minerals.
Reliance on Rare Earth Minerals from China Could Pose Problems for the US
What are rare earth minerals? Rare earth minerals are also known as rare earth elements (REEs), and are a group of 15 chemically similar elements called lanthanides. Commercially, REEs also include two elements not strictly in the REE group, scandium and yttrium. They are all usually soft metals, with the unique properties of being catalytic, magnetic, and/or optical. According to an article by Lilian Luca, MineWeb, “REEs are sometimes referred to as ‘industrial vitamins’ due to the fact that tiny quantities of them, when added to other elements, tend to confer unique properties on the latter. In many applications, no substitute has been identified for a particular REE. REEs are not, strictly speaking, that rare. The least common of them, lutetium, is more common in nature than silver, while the most abundant REE, cerium, is more prevalent than copper. The problem with mining REEs, however, is that they are rarely found in economically viable concentrations, and tend to occur together as a group, creating additional issues with separation. ”
China controls the exporting of many of these REEs. The real issue is that the Chinese government has imposed constantly increasing export duties and quotas on the REE industry. There are further rumors that the most valuable of these REEs will be banned from export. China controls over 93% of the world’s REE production. So where will that leave us? The US is dependent on these REEs for both technology gadgets and many military weapons. According to Lilian Luca’s article, “There are quite a few production sites being developed at the moment, for example, in Australia, Canada, South Africa and Greenland. Unfortunately, most of them will not be able to ramp up output until 3-4 years from now, and significant environmental, technological and financing concerns may yet keep production costs high and supply outside China uncertain. ”
Recycling your cell phone can help the situation. With so many people upgrading their cell phones, the DOE (US Department of Energy) is promoting recycling to retrieve the rare minerals used in the obsolete cell phones. In addition, the DOE is also investing in research to develop viable substitutes for the REEs. According to an article in the Miami Herald, “Mines in the US are being reopened, but the DOE says it could take 15 years to develop enough other sources of REEs to wean itself away from China. Large mineral deposits have been found in Australia, which is a very good thing for the US. ”
Should we be concerned? Are we overly dependent on China? This is just the tip of the iceberg. The US has borrowed substantial amounts of money from China. Our import/export ratio with China is very unbalanced. Remember that China is a communist country. For better or for worse, we are married to China economically. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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