Why are 'rare earth elements' China's secret weapon?

Written By: Vyomica Berry WION Web Team
Beijing, China Published: Dec 18, 2021, 03:05 PM(IST)

The photo shows a wheel loader on a road near a 'toxic lake' surrounded by rare earth refineries near the inner Mongolian city of Baotou. On the edge of the Chinese city of Baotou, a 10-square-kilometre lake is blackened by pollution from factories processing rare earths, elements essential for the production of mobile phones and computers. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

From smartphones to supersonic jets, rare earths are the secret ingredients to almost every scientific wonder

'War by other means' is something nations employ on each other. Any action to cripple the economy of the adversary, such as sanctions, is one example.

In the past two years, we have seen how, in our interconnected world, a virus can be much more lethal in comparison to bullets or bombs. It's not yet clear if it originated naturally, deliberately, or accidentally. 

Even as that debate rages, a new battle is brewing below the radar for a secret ingredient that will act as a significant weapon.

These all-powerful elements are called ''rare earths'' and they can fuel our future.

They are a set of 17 metallic elements that already rule our lives. Scandium and Yttrium along with 15 lanthanides on the periodic table come under the category of rare earth elements (REE).

From smartphones to supersonic jets, they are the secret ingredients to almost every scientific wonder.

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China accounts for 97 per cent of the global production of these elements as per the US Geological Survey. The country's government is trying to alter the number of rare earth elements that can be exported.

These elements are precious and extremely rare because of their distribution. They are not found in big deposits and are expensive.

It is difficult to mine and refine them are they are spread all across the world. The distribution of the rare earth elements is as follows:

China-44 million metric ton
Australia-22 million metric ton
Vietnam-22 million metric ton
Russia-12 million metric ton
India-6.9 million metric ton
Brazil-3.4 million metric ton
United States-1.4 million metric ton

Despite being fairly abundant, rare earth elements are hard to find. In China, they are concentrated in three mines. 

These include mines located in Mongolia, Huanan, Guangxi, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, and the province of Sichuan. These areas account for 98 per cent of China's total rare earth elements. 

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China uses them as components of over 200 products across a wide range of applications such as high-tech consumer products and defence applications such as guidance and radar systems.

A dearth of rare earth products disrupt climate economy products wind turbines and throws electric vehicle battery manufacturers into disarray.

Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader of China said that ''The Middle East has oil and China has rare earths.''

Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to hoard these elements by restricting their export by a number of Sino foreign joint venture companies.

While the United States is at loggerheads with China, it still continues to export 80 of its rare earth elements from China.

China is using them as a political weapon or bargaining chip to threaten the US several times that will halt its supply if it continues to impose sanctions on it.

As a backup plan, it is investing heavily in South America and that includes securing critical minerals.

In a multi-pronged approach, it has invested $780 million in Venezuela, out of which $180 million is specifically dedicated to nickel mining.

It has a 55 per cent stake in Chile and Peru's copper reserves and a 49 per cent stake in Bolivia's lithium industry.

China has invested $36 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa and has owned 60 per cent of the cobalt reserves in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Does the world have other options?

Yes, there are other countries with large deposits of rare earth elements that can feed the needs of the American and European markets and end China's monopoly. These countries include Australia, Vietnam, India, Brazil, and Canada.

India was one of the first countries to recognise the importance of these minerals. The country established a government company called Indian Rare Earths Limited in 1950 that was based in Mumbai.

Despite having that advantage, the progress of extracting these rare earth elements got buried under red tape.

The industry for these elements is still under-used in comparison with its true potential.

The minerals lie buried in Indian soil and the country has the world's fifth-largest reserve of them.

The deposits and mostly located in the states of Kerala, Andra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and the northeastern states.

According to an estimate by Beach Minerals Producers Association, the domestic supply chain of rare earth elements in India can be worth Rs 90,000 crore ($12 billion) in annual turnover if it is revived.

The industry can provide capital employment of approximately Rs 121,000 crore ($16 billion). This will include a massive foreign exchange of Rs 50,000 crore ($6 billion) as the same estimate.

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