The Challenges of Restarting U.S. Rare Earth Metal Production

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Rare earth metals go into all kinds of advanced electronics from components of Abrams tanks to wind turbines. While the U.S. once dominated the production of the minerals, 95 percent of the supply now comes from China. In recent weeks, what The New York Times has described as an "embargo on shipments" of the metals out of China has highlighted the insecurity of that supply. Others have suggested a variety of other reasons for the lack of rare earth exports that don't pack the geopolitical punch of an unannounced embargo.

Either way, the fact remains that China controls almost all the supply of a key raw material, and the US is going to have a hell of a time trying to muscle the country's leaders into doing anything they don't want to with them.

One way to solve the problem would be to support domestic rare earth metal production. But that's not going to be easy. While the mine that long produced metals still exists out in California, and there's a company (Molycorp) that wants to get it running, it may not be the cheapest possible way of producing rare earths. But perhaps more crucially, we're missing key expertise because we let the knowledgeable people wander away from the industry when it collapsed. (I'll just note that the same thing has hampered much energy research since the 1970s.)

All that to say: read the New York Times' Room for Debate discussion about rare earths. You'll get a nice, round vision of what'd be needed to get just this one small industry up and running:

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?

Read the full story at Room for Debate on the New York Times.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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