Why exactly isn't the US mining and producing its own rare earth metals (REEs)? I'm baffled by the mixed messages below. Because China uniquely possesses some REEs? US safeguards against pollution more than China? US would take too much time or is inefficient to establish its own production?
Can the US gainfully do so? How long would the US need to self-rely?
There is a large subsection of rare earth materials that are not found outside of China in any mining development.
There's I believe a list of 18 and Australia's Lynas only has about 5-6 iirc, and altogether the world can't cobble all 18 together without relying on China.
There's no suppliers outside China. There are potential minerals deep in some countries with no technology or existing extraction operation.
United States implements Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) with countries such as Australia, Peru, Argentina, Namibia and the Philippines to limit China's control of rare earth minerals : geopolitics
It is not the source of supply that matters but the extraction and refining tech that help China dominate. The supply still have to be sent to China for processing.
REMs actually aren't that rare, despite their name. Japan recently found deposits that could basically supply Earth from now to infinity. The US has huge deposits as well.
The US already has infrastructure in place. Before China undercut the market, the US actually supplied the world with most of the REMs needed from mining at Mountain Pass. Mountain Pass still exists and has output shutdown because China didn't make it profitable, but the point is that it still exists and infrastructure is already there. In theory, we could just start it up again without needing too much more investment.
REMs can easily be recycled. In fact, this is what Apple does out of environmental concerns and to hopefully reach a point where REMs never have to be mined for again:
- The US and even private companies have some stockpiles of REMs to hold out in the short term if there were disruptions in REM supplies.
When you combine Mountain Pass, the ability to recycle REMs, and REM reserves, there's very little strategic gain for China to cut supplies. It'll just encourage development in other countries and shifting of sourcing to places like Japan. The US would just fire up Mountain Pass again. China would lose market share. In fact, China already tried to restrict REM supplies earlier in the 2010s; it wasn't effective at all.
You definitely aren’t wrong, but maybe you’re underestimating the fact that China has 1/3 of the world rare earth reserves and 40x as much untapped supply as the US.
Who can produce at the lowest cost? Probably China, where rare earth is abundant and labor is cheap.
They are also the only ones that will separate the ores as it is a really nasty process with vats of acid and tons of toxic chemical waste. Look up lake Baotou in China, that is where lots of China’s rare earths come from and where they pump the waste when they are done. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth it could be done ‘clean’ if there were some incentive to do so.
Since lots of the deposits in the US have a bunch of Thorium in them as well they are heavily regulated similar to uranium mining. With that extra burden most deposits are uneconomical to extract.
The reason why China and REMs are always mentioned in the same sentence is because China pulled an Amazon and undercut their competitors with government subsidies to dominate the market. You can find other sources but they cost much more, mainly because they don’t have people backing them trying to monopolize the entire industry. This is actually a blessing in disguise. We need more neodymium if we ever want to fulfill a dream of renewable energy overtaking coal and gas. Just like any business, people follow the money, and we know the US is sitting on mountains (literally) of resources waiting to be mined and used. Provided domestic industry gets some help I can see this blowing up in China’s face.