Countries can rise or fall based on what lies under their feet.
Kingdoms in the Middle East gained power due to their vast reserves of oil. Gold and silver mines drove the populating of parts of the American West.
In the 21st century, rare earth elements may be the essential resources that shape our future as a country.
Rare earth elements are not necessarily as scarce as their name suggests, but they are difficult to obtain and process. They are key ingredients in some advanced manufacturing processes. Your smartphones and televisions likely depend on them.
More importantly, they are used in technology vital to national defense, such as missiles, jet engines, and satellites.
Thus, it is a matter of great concern that the United States heavily depends on rare earth elements from China. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that China produced approximately 84% of the world’s rare earth elements between 2011 and 2017. There have been indications that China could exploit this reliance in its trade negotiations with the Trump Administration. Most relevantly, a tabloid owned by the Chinese Community Party said that could happen.
It is notable that China is talking about such a step. I believe this shows that President Trump is driving a hard bargain.
Nevertheless, Chinese action to curtail our supply of rare earth elements would have serious repercussions for our military preparedness and our economy. We should therefore act to secure a supply here in the United States.
Right now, only one rare earth elements mine is open in the United States, the Mountain Pass mine in California. The Chinese own a minority interest in it, and the elements extracted there are apparently shipped to China for processing. A processing facility at a location in Texas is planned but will not be ready for several years.
The Federal Government should consider what it can do to accelerate mining and processing of rare earth elements within our borders. Finding better ways to develop these resources should be a priority of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are other paths to a more secure supply of rare earth elements available to us. Some of them may lead to Virginia’s coalfields. As I have written here before, Virginia Tech’s Dr. Roe-Hoan Yoon and the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies has done work on extracting rare earth elements from coal byproducts. They have received federal funding from the Department of Energy.
We must continue to support research into viable technologies to extract rare earth elements from our coalfields and other geological formations in North America.
Because China has already threatened our supply of these valuable resources, we need to start moving now, and move fast.