A detailed column written by The Richmond Daily News in July described what rare earth minerals are, pointed out that this country is too reliant on China for rare earth minerals and suggested the United States should mine abundant and easily accessible rare earth minerals available in this country, including in Missouri.
Last week, China threatened the United States with the possibility of withholding rare earth elements.
What are “rare earths,” what prevents them from being refined in the U.S. and why are they vital?
DEFINITION: The term, “rare,” is a misnomer, at least in terms of accessing rare earth elements. The 17 chemically similar elements are a common byproduct of metal mining operations, including iron ore found in Missouri. This country alone mines about 85 percent of all rare earth and then, essentially, throws them away.
NOT REFINED: Federal regulations prevent rare earth minerals from being refined. Producing and refining rare earth oxides results typically in the accumulation of a waste product called thorium. Thorium produces radiation, but modern research suggests thorium is not as dangerous as other radioactive substances in common use and could be used beneficially. China has no problem using thorium.
THE VALUE: China is the world’s rare earths supplier and could shut off the flow to this country.
Oddly, the U.S. military relies on China, a belligerent opponent of U.S. policy, for rare earths used in this nation’s defense. For example, a Virginia-class submarine requires about 9,200 pounds of rare earths, and the F-35 Lightning uses 920 pounds, Reed M. Izatt, Ph.D., wrote. U.S. missile, stealth and satellite systems must use China’s rare earths. Such reliance on China is bizarre, based on using common sense in defense.
From a general economic standpoint, unique magnetic, luminescent and electrochemical properties make rare earths indispensable in high-tech products that are smaller, lighter and more energy efficient than alternatives. Rare earths are in cell phones; lasers; small-but-powerful magnets used in loudspeakers and hard drives; green tech, including wind turbines and hybrid cars; lenses, visors and TV screens; aircraft engines; medical imaging tech; and nuclear reactor rods. Again, China has threatened to cut off U.S. access to rare earths as part of the trade war.
NOT ABOUT PROFIT: Rare earth production is worth only about $4 billion per year to China – not a vast amount. Facebook has topped that in a single quarter. What is important is not the modest amount of money that could be made, and the potential jobs created, if rare earths could be processed in the U.S. What is important is that the U.S. should not continue to ignore China’s dangerous monopoly on rare earths.
A SOLUTION: Congress has failed to foster safe and sustainable rare earth development in the U.S. for over a decade (see the book “Sell Out” by Victoria Bruce, despite the fact U.S. heavy rare earth resources are far superior to those in China. A St. Louis expert on rare earths, James Kennedy, in an interview suggested establishing a rare-earths cooperative and a thorium corporation. Mining companies would sell rare earth byproducts to the co-op, which would transform byproducts into metals, alloys, magnets and other value-added materials tech and defense industries need. The thorium would be transferred to a separate corporation that would provide long-term, safe storage, and develop industrial uses and markets for thorium, including energy. The rare earth cooperative and thorium corporation would be privately funded, managed and operated.
Because co-op investors/owners would be mostly multi-national tech firms, executive or congressional action is required to eliminate antitrust issues and establish the confidence needed to attract the billions of foreign dollars needed for development, Kennedy said.
The time to act is now.
“There are 100 (U.S. military) systems that are 100 percent dependent on China. If that’s not news, there is no news,” Kennedy said.