China continues to make the news about its possible restriction on rare earth metals. This isn’t new, as China had previously restricted rare earth metals in 2010 as a move against Japan. Should China decide to impose a ban, it will only hurt them long term though.
In case you don’t have a periodic table hanging up at home (and you should!), rare earths are transition metals in the middle of the table that have properties that make them useful in a lot of ways. For example, yttrium is added to metals to reduce crystallization when the making thick metal structures. This is useful for things like nuclear pressure vessel heads, which need to be consistently strong and relatively uniform throughout. Yttrium also is useful for making lasers, superconductors and LEDs.
What makes rare earth metals rare is that most of them likely didn’t come from planet Earth in the first place. Yttrium likely came from red stars. Other rare earths came from specific conditions of cooling lava. Some aren’t even all that rare. Cerium, for example, is more common than lead
Economists are worried that the worlds economy could come down is rare earths are restricted. They see the world simplistically as
- China owns most of rare earth exports
- Rare earths enable things like TVs and medical equipment
- China restricting these exports means they win
But it isn’t that easy. For starters, when something becomes rare, Americans find ways to use other things. When silk ran out in WW2 due to the war with Japan, we began using spider silk for gun sights. Black widow spiders were harvested by the thousands (don’t click the link if you don’t like spider pictures!) because they were great silk producers and safer to harvest due to their slow speed. Later on, we developed genetically modified goats that produce milk that silk can be extracted from.
Recycling is another possibility. We don’t separate our trash streams very well. Rare earth metals are useful in electronics, and sadly they are also very toxic in the environment. Millions of pounds of electronics wind up in landfills, leaching these chemicals out. But as recycling gets easier, rare earth mining won’t be as necessary. WW2 serves as a good guide for this. Things like kitchen fat were recycled and gathered to make explosives. The same could happen with electronics, and our environment would be better off for it.
China’s attempt to weaponize rare earths is interesting, but poorly thought out. Long term, it would only serve to jolt us from lazy mining into recycling and alternative measures.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.