The latest in the China-US fiasco is that China is hinting at restricting the exports of rare-earth metals to the US. This will be another step in the trade war that the two countries are actively taking part in for quite some time. However, if a ban such as this one took place; it would pose difficulties and even harm American tech, manufacturing, and defense industries. As of right now, eighty percent of the US imports of rare-earth metals are coming from China as per the US Geological Survey.
Stocks in rare-earth companies have shot up ever since China first hinted that it might be weaponizing the rare-earth metals in the trade war. This happened when President Xi Jinping visited a rare-earth metals factory, and the visit was highly publicized.
You all are probably wondering what exactly are rare-earth metals? Basically, these are the metals – seventeen in total – from the periodic table of elements that are found in low concentration in the ground. They are said to be rare since it is hard to find them inadequate concentration to be exploited economically. Extraction and processing them for further use also require quite a lot of energy.
The elements are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium. They offer different chemical and physical properties and can be used for multiple purposes. Out of the seventeen elements, Lanthanum, samarium, promethium, neodymium, praseodymium, and cerium are classified as ‘light rare-earth elements’ whereas the rest are known as ‘heavy rare-earth elements.’
A variety of everyday products make use of these rare-earth metals. Europium, terbium, and Yttrium are utilized in LED screens that can be found in smartphones, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and tablets. These elements offer red-green-blue phosphors that allow to power the display screen. These are also used in iPhone batteries and are used for making your smartphones vibrate. Apple did say back in 2017 that it has plans to stop using the rare earths in its phone manufacturing process and switch to recycled materials. However, the plans have yet to become materialized.
Lanthanum is also used for camera lenses. Lanthanum alloys are sought by electric-vehicle industry for making the rechargeable batteries. Permanent magnets based on neodymium are also utilized in electric-vehicle motors.
The Department of Defense makes use of these metals for the jet-engine coatings, missile guidance systems, missile defense systems, satellites, and communication systems. The Pentagon’s demand for these minerals constitutes 1% of the total US demand. As per DoD, ‘Reliable access to the necessary material, regardless of the overall level of defense demand, is a bedrock requirement for DoD.’
The rare earths are also used for clean energy and oil refining. Whether China moves forward with the ban or not; it is imperative that the US and western countries reevaluate their supply chains and make necessary adjustments because it was them who poked China and not the other way around!