It's Mined Over Matter...

January 13, 2012
By Beverly Schaeffer

...When the international mining community is aiming to shake off the absolute dominance held by the People's Republic of China in the market for rare earths, which are a series of elements in the periodic table. These elements are critical for the U.S. military's high-tech communications and weaponry, as well as those of other allied nations. According to Michael A. Robinson in his article, "Rare Earths to Become Less Scarce," in this issue of SIGNAL Magazine, new mines could be supplying U.S. military needs, along with those of other nations, in just a few years. China controls 97 percent of the world's rare earths supply, and it is further choking availability by closing some of its mines by deeming them "environmentally unsafe." The result is severe cutbacks on exports, in what some experts believe is that country's attempt to completely monopolize the rare earths market. Rare earths are a vital element in information technology circuitry. They also are critical to communications equipment. The U.S. military, however, does not obtain rare earths directly from China and is prohibited from doing so under federal law. The Defense Department instead buys components that include rare earths. They often come from Japan and are used in an array of hardware, from missile guidance systems to fiber optic links to avionics. Peter Cashin, president and CEO of Quest Rare Minerals Limited, says that to understand this market, it's important to draw a distinction between light and heavy rare earths. This latter category is more difficult to obtain, Cashin explains, partly because processing these materials is quite complex:

Military applications require 100 percent reliability. And heavies do that because they are more heat-resistant than the applications that use the light rare earths.

The Chinese are very impoverished in heavy rare earths, says Cashin, whose company owns property with a massive deposit of rare earths in northeastern Canada. When his company's Strange Lake mine opens in 2015-2016, Cashin says he expects more restraints from China. Despite their need for rare earths, the Europeans continue to resist moving factories to China to obtain more stable supplies. Mark Saxon is CEO of Canadian company Tasman Metals Limited. His company has a large rare earth mine in Sweden, and he notes that Europeans in particular hope to have domestic sources by 2015. This is related to the European Union's (EU's) commitment to fostering green technology. Wind turbines and hybrid cars require vast amounts-literally tons-of these substances, Saxon explains:

When you talk about Europe and the rare earths, you are really talking about Germany. Germany is by far the major consumer within the EU. And most of the manufacturing lines where significant intellectual property exists are still being done inside Germany.

Whether they're U.S., European, Australian, Canadian or other nationalities, each country has a critical, vested interest in developing resources to mine its own rare earths. Dependence on a restrictive nation like China for rare earths cannot bode well. Determined nations now are seeing to it that they will catch up and remain on the cutting edge. Are they doing all they can to sever their dependence on China, and will this be completely possible? Read the full article; please share your opinions here.

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