Outside editorial: Weaning ourselves from a China import

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Miami Herald:

An integral part of that cellphone you can't live without is neodymium, a rare earth mineral used in magnets for computers, audio speakers and those ubiquitous phones. Holmium, another mineral, has the greatest magnetic strength of any element and is used in medical and dental lasers.

Truth is, an amazing number of technologies and military weaponry rely on a group of 15 rare earth minerals, most of them with atomic numbers 57 through 71 on the periodic table. They are especially important components of green technology products energy-saving light bulbs, wind turbines, Toyota's gas-saving Prius hybrid, to name a few. They also figure in the manufacture of some military and national-security hardware.

In other words, these elements are important to the future of the United States. And where does the United States get most of its rare earth minerals these days? You guessed it: China. That could spell trouble for U.S. manufacturers in the not-too-distant future, according to a new U.S. Department of Energy report.

As recently as 1990, the United States mined its own "rare earths," as the elements are called. But mining can seriously damage the environment, and the United States gradually closed its mines. Now, we are more than 90-percent dependent on rare earths imported from China or from countries that get these materials from China.

The DOE has wisely, if belatedly, launched efforts to diversify the U.S. supply of these elements and ensure that the country will have substantial stockpiles as new technology finds more uses for them. One mine in California plans to reopen in 2012, a good sign. And many of these elements can be recycled (just think about all those obsolete cellphones you've sent to Mount Trashmore), which the DOE is promoting. It is also investing in research to develop viable substitutes.

There is some urgency because this year China began to limit its rare earth exports. Now that it has cornered the world market, it also has slapped higher export tariffs on some minerals while reducing taxes for its domestic rare earth users. One result of this is that more clean-energy technology companies are moving operations to China to save costs. For example, rare earths are used to make most wind turbines and China recently cornered the global market on that industry.

None of this bodes well for the U.S. economy or for growing its manufacturing sector, therefore creating new jobs. The DOE says that it could take the United States 15 years to develop enough other sources of rare earth minerals to wean itself away from China. Large mineral deposits have been found in Australia good news for us.

Ironically, rare earth minerals aren't rare. They are widely distributed in the Earth's crust, but they can be difficult to extract in profitable quantities, and extraction is expensive. Also, there are those environmental concerns. Yet, the United States must end its rare-earth reliance on China even as it expands the development and manufacturing of clean-energy products that require them.

It's worth noting that the DOE calls these minerals "strategic materials." Exactly they are strategic to our economy and to our national security. We can't afford to continue relying on China as our major source for them.


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