Heavy Metal: More Business For China

“Seventeen metals on the periodic table of elements are the commotion from Tokyo to Washington, D.C.”

Writes Catherine Ngai of National Geographic.

Rare-earth metals or REMs are composed of element number 21, scandium; number 39, yttrium; and the 15 lanthanides, numbers 57-71, on the periodic table. They are often found in clusters, but you would not call them rare.

These metals are crucial ingredients in making motors and batteries for hybrid and electric cars, Low energy light bulbs, solar panels and wind turbines.

And outside of the green energy forum, they are crux also in the art of weapons building. “Smart bombs” which use neodymium-iron-boron magnets to control their direction when dropped out of an aircraft, yttrium-aluminum-garnet used in determining the range of enemy targets at far distances, lasers that employ neodymium and neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets used for sound system components utilized in psychological warfare are among their numerous practical uses.

The only U.S. mine, near the Mojave National Preserve in Mountain Pass, California, became inactive in 2002 after 50 years of production, due to economic and environmental issues.

The Chevron-owned mine was taken over in 2008 by Molycorp Minerals LLC. A company that spent more than $400,000 since 2008 lobbying Congress about rare-earth minerals.

In 2009, 90% of the U.S. imports for rare-earth metals were from China, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Though, according to USGS, the figure this year is 9%.

Consumption of the products which use rear-earth metals has decreased radically during the economic downturn, according to a USGS report. A 55% decrease from $186 million imported in 2008, in 2009, the estimated value of these products imported by the United States was $84 million, a 55% decrease from $186 million imported in 2008.

On the other hand, looking toward the future, the demand for rare-earth minerals would rise as electric cars and more alternative energy and efficiency applications comes on the market. There is a rumor that China plans to stop exporting their metals in 2012, reserving them for their own economic exansion, though this stands to be verified.

China now exports roughly 30,000 tons a year; only one-fourth of the world demand.

In order to facilitate the building of more “green” technology, the world will require 200,000 tons of rare earth elements by 2014.

One solution is to offer China an incentive by spawning more imaginative green technology ideas. This is if lobbying Congress to utilize whatever is at America’s disposal proves ineffectual, or if that supply eventually vanishes.

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