Can the U.S. Compete on Rare Earths?

November 9, 2010 at 2:50 pm

A mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., was once the world’s leading producer of so-called rare earth minerals, which are used in everything from missile systems to electric cars. But the mining was stopped in 2002 after a leak of radioactive fluid. China’s lower-cost operations, technical superiority and lax environmental rules propelled it to become the dominant producer, and today it accounts for 95 percent of the world’s supply.

But China’s recent embargo on shipments on the crucial minerals to the United States, Europe and Japan raised new concerns about Beijing’s monopoly, and added urgency to efforts by other countries to develop their own source of the minerals, for which demand is growing.

Molycorp Minerals, the operator of the Mountain Pass site, wants to reopen the mine with higher safety and environmental standards. In Australia, a mining company, Lynas Corporation, hopes to begin small-scale production at a rich deposit in the middle of the country, though technical issues remain.

But even if the U.S. and other countries can find and unearth the elements, do they have the technical expertise to compete with China in their processing? Is the domestic production of rare earth elements essential to American economic and national security interests?

Source: The Opinion Pages, New York Times, November 9, 2010
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Entry filed under: China, Trade.

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