The Rare Earth Metals the U.S. Wants That China's Got
Whether you realize it or not, your smartphone-toting, hybrid car-driving, neon light-gazing would be impossible without the cooperation from China, our fickle friends on the other side of the planet.
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Whether you realize it or not, your smartphone-toting, hybrid car-driving, neon light-gazing would be impossible without the cooperation from China, our fickle friends on the other side of the planet. These and other modern technologies are powered in part by 17 rare earth-metals which, as the name implies, are hard to come by. Rare earth-metals aren't actually that rare; they're about as plentiful in the Earth's crust as any other element in the periodic table. However, everywhere in the world except in China, they are difficult to mine. So, much to America's chagrin, China controls 97 percent of these minerals. On Monday, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced a new goverment association that will regulate and promote the processing and export of rare earth-metals.
The move is an apparent rebuttal to the formal complaint with regards to China's restricting exports of rare-earth metals that President Obama filed with the World Trade Organization in partnership with the European Union and Japan less than a month ago. It's unclear how the new government agency will regulate rare earth-metal exports. Nevertheless, the event provides a good opportunity to take a step back and put into context exactly how desperately we might might miss these natural resources should China decide to clamp down on access further. If you're still confused about why this is becoming such a hot international and environmental issue, we've pulled together the uses of the top nine rare earth-metals, and we bet you'd miss them if they were gone.
If you drive a hybrid, chances are you're dependent on lanthanum. This is the primary metal used in the ever-so-important battery. With the help of a bit of nickel, lanthanum enables more power to be stored in a smaller space, making the hybrid cars more efficient. A common additive in glass, lanthanum is also the material used to make camping lanterns glow.
Erbium is especially cool because, guess what, it makes lasers. Or rather, its pink-colored ions can produce a very mechanically simple stream of light particles that's handy for everything from fiber optic cables (like the ones that bring you cable TV) to dermatology and dentistry equipment. Bonus: It also produces the rosy coloring in some sunglasses lenses.
Much like erbium, its neighbor on the periodic table, europium is used in glass and lasers. However, europium is a little bit more versatile and is used to produce everything from to the anti-counterfeiting technology in European bank notes to the red in TV and smartphone displays. Yttrium is another rare earth-metal used to create red pixels.
Cerium, like many other rare earth-metals, is useful for TV screens and lighting, but this one has a bit of a twist. As a catalytic converter, cerium can clean up greenhouse gases, a real perk in this day and age. As a result, the element is used everywhere from oven cleaner to oil refineries. And since China's got the bulk of the world's mineable supply -- not to mention a pollution problem -- we hope they use it for good.
Remember your old Fender Stratocaster? The red one with the whammy bar and black leather strap? Part of the reason it sounded so great when you thrashed was neodymium. This metal makes great magnets that tend to be used in guitar pickups, microphones and in-ear headpghones. Larger versions can come in handy when building hybrid cars and jet engines. Splendidly, it also makes an excellent additive in plant fertilizer.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.