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The New Resource Wars: What If China Stops Exporting Rare Elements?

Earlier this week, China halted all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan. That’s bad news for batteries, lasers, wind turbines and solar panels.

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Earlier this week, China halted all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan after the country detained a Chinese fishing trawler captain on a boat in contested water. This was a political act designed to strongarm Japan into releasing the captain (he is still in custody). And it sets a scary precedent–China mines 93% of all rare earth metals. What happens if China stops exporting rare earth metals altogether?

We’re becoming more and more reliant on rare earth metals, a collection of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust. The metals actually aren’t that rare, but they’re only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia. Even if China doesn’t halt exports, demand for rare earth metals is on track to outstrip supply by 40,000 metric tons per year in the next few years.

A lack of supply could mean high prices for some of the technology that we value most, including electric car motors, wind turbines, solar panels (they’re found in the glass), lithium-ion batteries, lasers, and optical-fiber communication systems.

As it stands, the U.S. looks to Japan to manufacture most components containing rare earth metals. But that may change soon. According to the New York Times, the House of Representatives is scheduled to review a bill this week that could subsidize America’s rare earth industry, which is centered around a mine in Mountain Pass, California. The rare earth mine–one of the largest in the world–has been closed since 2002 due to lack of demand, but Molycorp Minerals is now trying to raise the $500 million needed to reopen the site.

Even if the site reopens, the U.S. and Europe will still probably rely on Asia for much of their rare earth needs–China has been mining large quantities of rare earth metals for decades, and has more experience using them for industrial applications. The next resource war, then, may be over the materials used in the clean energy technologies that were supposed to help us transition away from reliance on unstable regimes.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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