Rare earth metals have been hitting the news recently. They are a set of 17 elements that are hardly famous outside of academic and industrial circles. Rare earth metals include such elements as Scandium, Yttrium, Promethium, Europium and Erbium. These elements are confusingly called ‘rare’ despite being relatively plentiful in the earth’s crust. They are used for a number of applications including lasers, rare earth magnets, nuclear batteries and high index refractive glass. In short they are used in a lot of different ways, and are thus of great economic value.
Although deposits of rare earth metals in ores are widely spread across the world, there are few places that concentrated ore deposits can be found. China in its ever increasing need for raw materials to keep its economic miracle going have developed several rare earth mines. By doing so, China has captured 90% of the rare earth supply in the world.
It was interesting to note that in April this year (2012) Japan, the EU and the USA complained to the World Trade Organization about China reducing its supply of rare earth elements. They accused China of having a monopoly and deliberately holding back supplies in order to drive up the price.
China responded by saying it wanted to standardize the price for rare earth metals and that they were not to be blamed for developing this natural resource when other countries were reluctant to do so.
If prices for rare earth metals continues to go up no doubt other economic superpowers will do something about it.
This anecdote clearly shows the strategic importance of natural resources including those that are less well known. China is positioning itself for the future when resources become more limited.