The United States and Japan are trying to break through China’s rare earth seis.

You may not realize this, but elements like Praseodymium, Terbium, and Gadolinium are as important at work as the iron, the universal meter, and the oscilloscope. These rare earth elements (REEs) make it possible for lasers and certain magnets, fluorescent lamps and sonar systems, computer memory and X-ray tubes, respectively.

The United States and Japan are trying to break through China's rare earth seis.

Rare earth elements periodic table: Rare earth elements are 15 types of niobium elements plus radon. Most rare earth elements are present in deposits.

Currently, there are 17 rare earth elements in the world that play an important role in every aspect of 21st-century life, and several pounds of these compounds, for example, can play an important role in batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles. But the industry that produces them has become a Chinese monopolist, and as Sino-US relations strain, the market for discussion of rare earths is in the press.

The United States and Japan are trying to break through China's rare earth seis.

Ironically, most rare earth elements are not particularly rare. Instead, they are rarely found in sufficient concentrations to make them profitable for easy extraction and refining. But that is not always the case. From the 1950s to the 1990s, the Mountain Pass mine in California’s Mojave Desert was the world’s largest supplier of certain rare earth elements that met the needs of color TV manufacturers and electronics manufacturers who supplied products to the U.S. defense industry during the Cold War. But the mine closed in 2002 as the war ended and the government’s strict environmental regulations were enacted.

But at the same time, China, which has a rich source of rare earths, has been carefully developing technologies for the extraction, separation, smelting and processing of rare earths since the 1970s. With previous lying out, the country became the world’s leading exporter of rare earths in the 1980s, and in 2010 China accounted for a staggering 97 per cent of the market. The price of many rare earth oxides has risen by more than 500% in just a few years. Although China’s share has since fallen to around 70-80, it has become the world’s largest consumer of rare earths, in line with its phenomenal growth in high-tech manufacturing.

In a January paper published in Mineral Economics on China’s 1975-2018 REE policy, the authors note that the Chinese government claims control of the rare earth industry in the 1990s as it tries to manage resources, reduce pollution and encourage the country’s industrial growth. Export restrictions and production quotas have led to soaring prices for rare earths.

Kristin Vekasi of the University of Maine said in an interview last summer that when other industrialized countries realized their interest in rare earths, China changed its strategy on rare earth prices, “keeping prices low and making it difficult for (other countries) to compete.” “

By a decade ago, China stopped exporting rare earths to Japan, which in recent years have been described in official government newspapers as an “important strategic resource”. The Japanese were quick to react to the export disruption. They work with the state and private sectors to encourage the recovery and diversification of rare earth resources. “By the end of 2017, Japan will import about 30 percent of rare earths from Asian countries other than China,” Vekasi said.

The United States and Japan are trying to break through China's rare earth seis.  

Japanese ship technicians twisted a “piston core picker” and used it to push a tube into the seafloor sediment (left) to collect mud samples rich in rare earth elements.

What’s more, in 2013, Japanese researchers discovered abundant rare earth elements in deep-sea mud in Japan’s exclusive economic zone 6,000 meters below sea level. Yasuhiro Kato of the University of Tokyo’s School of Engineering, who led the study, told IEEE Spectrum that they estimate that more than a million tons of some rare earth elements are found in the most promising areas of seabed sediments.

Kato added that they are currently working on a government program to explore rare earth elements. “For some of the industrially important rare earth elements such as Ytrium (Ytrium) and Europium, they can provide Japan’s annual demand from this single region three to ten times as much,” Yasuhiro Kato said. “Even if a small amount of rare earth-rich mud can be developed, the project will greatly help reduce Japan’s rare earth imports.”

According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Commerce Department, the U.S. was once self-sufficient in rare earth elements, but relied almost entirely on imports of rare earth elements, mainly from China. China’s near-monopoly of prices and unilateral actions” have attracted the attention of many U.S. government agencies, including Congress and the State Department, the report continues.

Then, last November, China and Australia agreed to work together to ensure the safety of rare earth resources and to support private companies to achieve this goal. In January, the United States and Canada signed a similar agreement.

The United States and Japan are trying to break through China's rare earth seis.  

The crusher is on display at the Mantipas mine in Mantipas, California, on May 30, 2019, when the rubble is broken before it is milled.    

Encouraged by this, the Chicago-New York Financial Group founded MP Materials and acquired the Mountain Pass mine in 2017 and has started operating again with new equipment. Today, the company produces 15 per cent of the world’s rare earth elements , which are now shipped to China for processing, and plans to reopen its processing facilities in 2022.

In a Department of Energy-funded study, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) of the University of Pennsylvania and the Idaho National Laboratory are jointly developing a new, protein-based, environmentally friendly process to extract and purify rare earth elements from low-grade resources that would otherwise require toxic chemicals to be treated. LLNL scientist Gauthier Deblonde told IEEE Spectrum that the biologically sourced compound, called Lanmodulin (LanM), “has an unprecedented appetite and selectivity for REE.” “And our collaboration brings a new green process to REE extraction and purification.”

To date, researchers have tested the process using electronic waste containing a variety of impurities and now believe it can be used in all 17 rare earth elements. “Without an effective extraction method, many other alternative sources of REE remain undeveloped,” Deblonde said, “and our green LanM-based approach will provide opportunities for the production or recycling of rare earths.” “