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  • Rare earths are essential for high-tech products, everything

  • from electric vehicles to mobile phones and even fighter jets.

  • However, China dominates the supply chain.

  • And as relations between the US and China deteriorate,

  • western countries fear they don't

  • have an alternative, which could have

  • serious implications for the future of manufacturing.

  • Rare earths are a group of 17 metallic elements

  • with obscure names such as lanthanum and terbium.

  • They're actually relatively plentiful in the earth's crust.

  • However, their geochemical qualities

  • mean they tend to be widely dispersed, making them

  • relatively difficult to mine and process profitably, hence

  • the name.

  • As a group, they tend to have high melting

  • and boiling points.

  • But it is when they react with other elements

  • that they become really useful.

  • In fact, they're indispensable for many electronic, optical,

  • and magnetic applications and currently irreplaceable

  • for modern devices such as electric vehicles

  • and mobile phones.

  • They're also vital for the defence industry.

  • Half a century ago, the Mountain Pass mine in California

  • was the world's leading source of rare earths.

  • But a successful push by Beijing to become the global leader

  • in the sector means it now produces about 80

  • per cent of the world's rare earths.

  • The sharp deterioration in relations between the US

  • and China is fueling concerns that Beijing

  • could cut off the supply.

  • In July, China threatened to impose sanctions

  • on Lockheed Martin, the biggest US arms manufacturer.

  • This has prompted the US, Australia, and the EU

  • to step up efforts to create an alternative supply chain.

  • Currently, there is just one major non-Chinese supplier

  • of rare earths, Lynas, an Australian-listed company.

  • But Lynas can only handle the so-called light rare earths

  • at its Malaysian processing facility,

  • leaving western companies totally

  • reliant on Chinese suppliers for heavy rare earths.

  • In July, the Pentagon provided funding to Lynas and US-based

  • MP Materials to design heavy rare earths processing

  • facilities that could be based in the US.

  • The US and Australian governments

  • have also signed an agreement to source new rare earth deposits

  • to boost security of supply.

  • The task of establishing a non-Chinese supply chain

  • will not be easy, however.

  • Even though rare earths are relatively abundant the process

  • of separating them poses technical and environmental

  • challenges.

  • China's dominance of the market enables

  • it to control prices and put pressure on challengers.

  • Beijing's Made in China 2025 strategy

  • is to create a vertically integrated supply chain

  • that dominates mining magnates in high-tech manufacturing,

  • such as electric vehicles.

  • But an increasing number of western experts

  • say this is exactly why the west needs

  • to begin producing its own supply of rare earths

  • and also the high high-performance magnets

  • required to power the digital age.

  • Otherwise, millions more high-tech jobs

  • could migrate to China.

Rare earths are essential for high-tech products, everything

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B1 US FinancialTimes rare supply china supply chain high tech

Why China's control of rare earths matters | FT

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    joey joey posted on 2021/06/05
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