Category: Rare Earths

Critical Minerals: Rare Earths and the U.S. Economy

Rare earths are 17 elements in the Earth’s crust used in a variety of applications, from hybrid cars and x-ray units to cell phones and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the United States is largely dependent on China for these critical minerals,posing a serious threat to the American economy.

Despite their name, rare earths (REs) are relatively abundant.  However, they are generally not concentrated together, making extraction expensive and often uneconomical.  While the United States has 13 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves, China dominates the industry with an estimated 50 percent of global RE reserves and 95 percent of all RE production. Currently, the United States has only one fully operating mine — the Mountain Pass mine in California — but it largely lacks the capacity to process the raw materials into finished components.

Not only are REs widely used, they have few substitutes:

  • Europium is used as a red phosphor in color cathode ray tubes and liquid crystal displays. It costs $2,000 per kilogram and there is no substitute.
  • Erbium is used in fiber-optic telecommunication cables as laser amplifiers. It costs an average of $1,000 per kilogram and there is no substitute.

Supply cuts could be devastating to certain sectors, especially the defense industry:

  • Advanced jet aircraft engines depend upon yttrium thermal coatings to shield metal components from extreme heat.
  • Rare earth permanent magnets that utilize neodymium move the fins of precision-guided munitions.
  • Military radar and detection systems us neodymium, yttrium, lanthanum, lutetium and europium to amplify sounds and improve signal resolution.

Lawmakers have drafted legislation to improve the regulatory process relating to mining in order to jumpstart investment and encourage the development of an American rare earths supply chain.

Thorium’s Potential to Deliver Safer, Cleaner and Cheaper Energy

Nuclear energy promised to generate low-cost electricity safely, with fewer environmental and health problems from air and water pollution than fossil-fueled power plants. For a number of reasons, that promise has not been fulfilled.

However, in addition to new designs for uranium-fueled reactors, efforts are underway in a number of countries to develop commercial nuclear reactor designs that could solve many of the problems encountered with existing uranium-fueled nuclear power plants. This new generation of reactors will be fueled by thorium (Th-232) instead of uranium (U-235).

Thorium-fueled reactors have a number of advantages over uranium reactors, including less potential for nuclear proliferation and less waste.

  • Thorium is three times as abundant in the Earth’s crust as uranium, and there are thorium-bearing ores identified in many countries.
  • Currently operating nuclear reactors are inefficient in extracting energy from uranium. Only about 3 percent of the uranium in the rods is consumed before the rods must be replaced, due to the buildup of fission byproducts in the rods.
  • Fission byproducts in liquid thorium salts, by contrast, can be removed and reprocessed to produce additional fuel stock, while the reactor continues to operate.

Thorium-based reactors have been shown to be more economical than uranium-fueled reactors. In contrast to conventional light water reactors using uranium, according to a 2013 report from the Bellona Foundation:

  • The capital costs of thorium reactors would be lower than conventional nuclear reactors; a 1 gigawatt (GW) thorium power plant would cost at most an estimated $780 million in comparison to capital costs currently of $1.1 billion per GW for a uranium-fueled reactor.
  • Less manpower would be required to operate the plant; for a 1 GW power plant, staffing costs may decrease from $50 million to $5 million.
  • Less radioactive waste is produced, perhaps one-tenth as little, by volume; thus, nuclear waste disposal for a 1 GW thorium power plant would cost an estimated $1 million or even less per year.

There are technical challenges in designing an efficient thorium-fueled nuclear reactor, but current development efforts underway will likely lead to a commercially practical system. The relative abundance, greater safety and lower cost of thorium-fueled systems could help fulfill the promise of nuclear power.

WTO Rules on China’s Rare Earth Exports

World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled recently that China’s rare earth elements (REE) export restrictions violate international trade regulations.

  • China has a 90-percent stranglehold on the bulk of supply and a 70-percent share of global consumption.
  • China is looking at removing REE export taxes, which were levied at a rate of 15 to 20 percent.
  • The new tax regime “will force Chinese rare earth producers to raise prices towards levels outside China.”
  • The impact in the short term could be significant, as domestic prices are generally 36 percent lower than FOB prices.
  • Should China manage to clean up its smaller mines and consolidate its REE industry, the country could solve the current overcapacity situation.

By Vivien Diniz of Resource Investing News

What Can We Learn from the WTO Case Against China?

After several years, the official complaint with World Trade Organization (WTO) over China’s export restrictions of rare earth materials has finally come to a conclusion: China’s exportation policies are inconsistent with its obligations to WTO and violate international trade rules.

Precisely because China’s share of the production of rare earths has been reduced from 95% in 2010 to 80% in 2013 leading to a steady price decline, the decision has not had a significant effect on the U.S. economy yet. Many domestic industrial producers, however, still welcome the final decision from WTO. They anticipate that China’s failure in this case may help them regain the competitive edge over China’s domestic and export producers. Additionally, some politicians also claim that this triumph will remain the high-quality, middle-class jobs in the U.S.

On the other hand, some policy analysts argue that the decision could be a double-edged sword which may hurt the U.S. Over the last decade, in order to protect the domestic industrial producers, the government has been implementing a series of import restrictions on some of the critical materials by using antidumping measures. Apparently, China suffers most from the antidumping policies. Therefore, it is entirely possible that China may file a suit against America for its antidumping policies based on the logic in this case. As some economists suggest, being embedded in a global economy, countries are so highly interconnected that any tiny modification may cause significant economic fluctuation. It is time to reconsider our trade policies to create a win-win situation.

Source: Xinyuan Zou is a research associate at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Critical Minerals Policy Act – NCPA Letter

The letter to Senators Landrieu and Murkowski from the NCPA:

The problem of Chinese dominance in the rare earths market cannot be overstated, given the United States’ — and in fact, the globe’s — significant reliance on rare earths for practically all modern technology. Computers, calculators, flat screen televisions, wind turbines, fuel cells, LED lights, electric car batteries — not to mention defense weapons, medical equipment, and even cancer drugs — all require rare earths to operate. The world’s demand for these minerals is only increasing. A disruption in supply could be incredibly problematic, and China has already cut its rare earths export quota significantly.

The United States need not, however, be reliant on other countries for our rare earths’ needs. Despite its production dominance, China holds only 36 percent of the globe’s rare earths reserves, while the United States actually has 13 percent of the world’s supply. Our problem is not a lack of minerals, but an unnecessarily cumbersome permitting process marked by confusion and duplication. As the 2013 report from Behre Dolbear on where not to invest in mining noted, “Permitting delays are the most significant risk to mining projects in the United States.”

The letter continues…


An Alternative to Uranium

Thorium has been shopped around to renewable energy groups as a valid alternative to both nuclear power and a way to curb CO2 production. Thorium is a common metal often found while mining rare earths such as monazite. Monazite sands normally contain around 45-48% cerium, 24% lanthanum, 17% neodymium, 5% praseodymium, along with a small amount of samarium, gadolinium and yttrium. Thorium contains a minimal amount of radioactivity and is 3 times more prevalent than uranium. The goal is for thorium to harness its potential energy and replace uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors. The most common type of thorium reactor is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) that has a freeze plug that allows the radioactive material to flow down into a tank in case of emergencies, creating a far safer alternative to the unsteady nature of uranium or the typical nuclear reactor.

Some Positives:

  • There is four times more thorium in the world compared to uranium and it is cheap than to mine. The U.S. has twice the amount of thorium than uranium.
  • Thorium can utilize recycled plutonium in order to become fissile. This means that we are recycling our reserves of plutonium waste that is given off in nuclear reactors.
  • The United States has the 5th largest thorium deposits in the world, thus leading to the reduction of foreign energy imports such as oil.
  • Thorium is safer in that the liquid actually cools as opposed to plutonium or uranium which stays hot constantly.
  • Thorium creates far less radioactive waste than other contemporary reactors.
  • Thorium can be used 200 times more efficiently than uranium can be.

Some Negatives:

  • The cost of research for thorium is so high that many countries spend millions of dollars in subsidies on stagnant technologies.
  • Thorium still needs plutonium or uranium to operate. Thorium turns into Uranium-233 after it is treated, which can be used to create a nuclear weapon.
  • The market chooses to invest in nuclear power currently because of the immediate payoffs.


Regardless of potential payoffs and risk thorium can be looked to as the future of energy. It currently has far more potential than solar or wind and can create vast amounts of energy very quickly. The possibilities of thorium are endless, and some day it could even be used to power planes and cars as easily as gasoline does today.

The Critical Minerals Policy Act

The Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on January 28th about Senator Lisa Murkowski’s bill, the Critical Minerals Policy Act. Here’s a brief summary: