The scarcity of rare earth metals has been in the news throughout 2010. Many of these substances are vital to the production of high technology equipment such as mobile phones. China controls 97% of the world’s production of rare metals and moves to restrict exports has raised alarm bells around the world.
The situation has caused a reversal in US policy in this regard. A large pit in the Mojave desert in the South West of the US has recently taken on new importance. This is a disused rare earth mine and underneath 20 feet of water in the pit there is a seam of rare earth ores, which is known to be the largest deposit of rare earth metals outside China. Interestingly, just 8 years ago this mine was closed in recognition that the rare earth market had been lost to China. Now, Molycorp Minerals, the owners of the site, are planning to recommence production soon and hope to make a significant contribution to the market.
A recent report from the US Department of Energy carried the stark warning that, unless mines like the one in Mojave repoen, the US could lose control over the production of devices such as smartphones, because of China’s rare earth monopoly. The tenuous position of the US, Europe and Japan has recently been brought to the fore by China’s 70% reduction of rare earth exports that has caused manufacturing problems and caused price rises of 40% in rare earth elements.