Business, Hardware, Technology Security

Will China Win the Tech Game by Restricting Exports of Rare Earth?

When you boot your computer or dial your cell phone you aren’t thinking about rare earth, but the Chinese are. They control 97 percent of the rare earth used in high tech products.

A seven minute video show just how important the 27% decline in allowed exports from China is.

What is rare earth and where is it used? First of all, rare is a misnomer. The 17 so-called rare earth elements are all metals and 200 plus times more common that gold. Commercially viable deposits, however, are only located in a few areas worldwide, China currently being the one of note.

You can thank these materials for your flat screen TV, the DVD’s you enjoy, the computer memory you depend upon. Rare earths are an important component of civilian and military life. They are used in your camera’s rechargeable battery, magnets in wind turbines, and the catalytic converter in your car. The military depends on them in night vision goggles and precision guided weapons.

Rare Earth Elements in Periodic Table (highlighted yellow)
Rare Earth elements in periodic table

Elements that are classified as rare earth have tongue twisting names such as samarium, lanthanum, dysprosium. Sports fans ? heads up. Scandium goes into the making of aluminum-alloy baseball bats as well as being used in the manufacturer of semiconductors.

You’d think more than 10,000 tons of the stuff being allowed for export would be more than enough in the coming first half of the year, but that is 27 percent less than the same period last year. The decline is upsetting manufacturers around the world, from the EU to Japan to the US. Several pounds of rare earth go into an electric car battery. With electric cars on the rise, our dependence on oil may decline, but our dependence on rare earth materials will rise.

Years ago China saw an advantage to their rare earth deposits

Years ago China saw an advantage to their rare earth deposits

China is employing a double frontal attack to boast its position. One, by restricting availability they hope to raise the price of their rare earth exports. Two, by restricting access to important materials they can reduce the number of units competitors can produce in the electronics industry, or at least encourage them to move operations to China to gain better access by being in country.

The ploy hasn’t turned out quite as expected. Prices for the rare earth fell as economic slowdown reduced the demand. Exports fell to 49 percent of their annual quota. In yo-yo fashion, China plugged the supply line by curtailing production and cutting down the number of companies that could sell outside the country.

Molycorp Minerals mining operations in California
Molycorp Minerals mining operation in California set to stave off Chinese control of rare earth

Those other countries are planning to reopen the rare earth mining operations in their own lands. Cheap Chinese mining labor doesn’t look so enticing now that the supply is under the control of a foreign power. The unemployed can look forward to jobs opening up in countries as diverse as Russia, Canada, Malaysia, India and even the state of California which is better known for its gold mines.

Mining claims in the Golden State from the 1950’s are being reclaimed in an area previously mined for uranium. A Japanese firm, the Sumitomo Corporation, partnered with Molycorp Minerals to reopen its mine in the Mojave desert, possibly as an affront to its historic rival.

Looks like competition will be heating up as rare earth availability dries up.