U.S. looks to reduce dependence on China for critical minerals

By ERIC SKALAC, MEDILL NEWS SERVICE, Written for UPI   |   May 24, 2011 at 3:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 24 (UPI) -- The United States needs rare earth elements for hybrid cars, light bulbs and Tomahawk cruise missiles, and with only one domestic production plant for the foreseeable future, scientists, academics and lawmakers are worried.

A U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing Tuesday addressed the concern that domestic demand for minerals like rare earth elements far outweighs domestic supply, forcing the United States to depend on China, a nation with its own rising demands for the minerals.

The resources in question are called "critical minerals," which include rare earth elements such as yttrium, neodymium and lanthanum -- used in familiar consumer products and military equipment and weapons -- as well as more commonly known minerals such as copper.

The United States has large supplies of both, and was once the only exporter of rare earths, but because of market pressure, regulatory issues and aging, expensive-to-upgrade equipment, the United States stopped mining rare earth minerals in the last few decades.

Now, the United States relies on China almost exclusively for rare earths. The U.S. Geologic Survey estimated that China produced 130,000 tons of rare earth oxide last year and supplied 92 percent of the U.S. supply of rare earth metals from 2006-09, while France supplied 3 percent and Japan supplied 2 percent.

The U.S. domestic supply comes from one plant.

Molycorp, Inc. has operated under different owners since the 1950s and was once the only producer of rare earth elements in the Western Hemisphere, said lobbyist Andy Davis.

It stopped producing in 2002, Davis said, in part because permits were expiring but also because of China's ability to sell rare earth elements cheaply. Molycorp started mining again in December as interest increased in the resources, "particularly in clean energy" where rare earth elements are used in solar, wind and hybrid vehicle technology, he said.

At Tuesday's House energy subcommittee hearing, scientists, academics and members of Congress agreed that lessening U.S. dependence on China for these materials was of primary importance. Relying on China "is not a sound approach for the country," said U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J.

But there was little agreement on how to establish reliable sources for the rare elements.

Robert Jaffe, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had led a recent study on critical minerals, emphasized a strategy of finding out exactly what critical mineral resources the United States has, researching economical production and use of the elements and recycling products that contain rare earth elements.

Most agreed that the USGS needed to develop a detailed inventory of U.S. and global critical mineral resources.

A number of the experts and lawmakers endorsed substitution efforts, which replace critical minerals of unreliable supply with easier to find materials, and recycling, in which products like cellphones and iPods can yield minute quantities of rare earth elements.

However, some committee members and witnesses disputed the importance of substitution and recycling compared with finding more sources for the minerals.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who led the meeting, said he would introduce legislation this week that would direct the U.S. Department of Interior to investigate the country's critical mineral needs and ways of meeting those demands with domestic production.

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