05 October 2010
Momentum is building in the US to address the nation's growing dependence on China for rare earth materials, crucial for developing clean energy, military and manufacturing technologies.
The US House of Representatives approved legislation on 29 September authorising research to address the shortage of these rare earth minerals and to identify substitutions. It passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, by a vote of 324 to 92.
The legislation would establish a research and development programme at the Department of Energy (DOE) to assure the long-term, secure, and sustainable supply of rare earth materials in the US. It also directs the DOE to support new or significantly improved processes, and encourages it to collaborate with the relevant directorates of the European Commission, another region relying heavily on outside supplies of rare earth materials.
But the bill is not expected to pass this Congress. Lawmakers are on recess until after the mid-term elections in November, and the measure is unlikely to progress during the so-called 'lame duck' session that follows. However, sources say the bill, and a companion version in the Senate, are likely to be introduced and advance after the new Congress convenes in January.
China controls the majority of the rare earths market, causing supply concerns for other regions
The US was once the world's leading supplier of rare earths, but it has produced little since its only rare earths mine closed in 2002. The nation now relies on access to supplies from China, which controls approximately 97 per cent of the world's rare earths.
China has achieved dominance in this area in part by imposing export quotas in 2006, which have steadily grown stricter. It has also encouraged rare earth dependant industries, like wind turbine manufacturing, to establish operations in China. The country reportedly cut its rare earths exports for the second half of this year by 72 per cent.
'This is a really serious problem, both for our energy security and for our military security - there is already a shortage of some of these advanced materials and products because of what the Chinese have done,' Karl Gschneidner, a senior metallurgist at DOE's Ames Laboratory and materials scientist at Iowa State University, US, tells Chemistry World.
The issue has gained traction on Capitol Hill, and several key congressional committees are investigating. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee convened a hearing to examine rare earths on 30 September, and the House Armed Services Committee will be holding its own hearing on 5 October. In addition, Rep. Edward Markey, who chairs the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has also asked the DOE, the defence and commerce departments, and the US Trade Representative to respond by 25 October to several questions, including the national security implications of possible Chinese restrictions of rare earth element exports.
'The shortage of rare earths on the market is creating an immediate challenge, or crisis, and the government has to respond to that very quickly because rare earths are such a critical component of so many things, including the nation's defence systems,' says Jim Sims, a spokesman for Colorado-based Molycorp, which owns the rare-earths mine in California that suspended activity in 2002.
A major challenge for the US is to rebuild its knowledge infrastructure in this area. It is estimated that there are at least 6000 researchers and other experts who focus on rare earth science in China, versus only about 20 in the US.
Reviving a US rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years, according to estimates from the congressional Government Accountability Office. Success is dependent on several factors - including securing capital investments, developing new technologies, and acquiring patents, currently held by international companies.