Modern-Day Uses of REE China
Rare earth elements (REE) are a set of seventeen elements that are an essential part of many modern-day processes and industries. Some of the most common applications of REEs can be found in electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, and defense applications. However, many other industries also utilize these REEs, including medical diagnostics, pharmaceutical, and agricultural fields. China
With many countries looking to move towards more green-powered solutions to fight things like climate change and pollution, this will require a larger shift towards technologies like EVs. In order to create the permanent magnetic motor in an EV, NdPr is needed, which is a mixture of the REEs Neodymium and Praseodymium. Combining these two elements creates the strongest magnet known to man and is critical if we are to fully replace internal combustion engines within our lifetime. Along these same lines, REEs are needed to power wind turbines essential for the net-zero transition we’re hoping to achieve. China
One use of REEs that gets a lot of media coverage is defense applications, and this is mostly because defense programs are government-funded, meaning there is funding support in order to secure these elements for use. However, although these defense applications are important, particularly with rising worldwide socio-political concerns, REEs are used in over 200 technological products, and without them, not only would we have to surrender our smart devices and technologies, but we would also not be able to hit our environmental targets such as eliminating the internal combustion engine vehicle. China
China as a Main Player in REE
China has some of the most significant deposits of REE, with roughly 38% of the world’s reserves. For example, China was responsible for 90% of all global exports of REE in 2019. Not only this, but they are also the main country to process and refine these materials so they can be used. Consequently, countries like the U.S. have come to rely heavily on China as a producer and refiner of precious REEs – even if that’s not necessarily the most advantageous solution.
In recent years, North America has realized that the dependency on Chinese REEs needs to be curtailed by our own production of these rare earth. However, it takes many years to identify a mineral resource, complete metallurgy analyses, build infrastructure, and create an operating, productive mine. Not to mention, the U.S. currently has no capability of refining the rare earth they mine, so even if they find more resources, they would still need to be sent over to China for processing anyway. Unfortunately, this means that North America, particularly the U.S., will still need to rely on China for REEs in the coming years.
At the same time, many efforts are being made to try and ease the dependence on China, including the Restoring Essential Energy and Security Holdings Onshore for Rare Earths Act of 2022, which essentially forces defense contractors to stop buying rare earth from China by 2026. Although we have already seen a significant decrease in reliance on China, with only about 60% of the world’s total REE production coming from China in 2022 compared to 85% in 2012, North America still faces massive demands and limited support.
Increased Demand for REEs
According to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), the supply of REE has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and demand pressures continue to build with all these eco-initiatives that North America is looking to implement. For example, the world needs another 200,000 tonnes of REEs in the next 10 years for EV application alone – this does not include other emerging applications such as wind turbines. Another statistic reports that the U.S. would need more than ten times its current rare earth supplies to reach Biden’s goal of having 50% of cars sold in 2030 be zero-emission EVs.
With such statistics looming overhead, it becomes apparent why we need domestic solutions to this problem. But, with only one REE mine in the U.S., the MP mine that supplied 15.8% of the world’s REE production in 2020, it’s not enough to keep up with rising demands. Currently, Defense Metals is the only deposit in North America similar to the MP mine, but emerging producers need ongoing support in order to be successful in the long term.
Ultimately, North America’s dependence on Chinese REEs will probably never fully go away but is expected to wane as North America, particularly the U.S. and Canada, identify and integrate domestic solutions to this growing demand.
By: Luisa Moreno of Defense Metals