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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain - R41347

Marc Humphries
Specialist in Energy Policy

The concentration of production of rare earth elements (REEs) outside the United States raises the important issue of supply vulnerability. REEs are used for new energy technologies and national security applications. Two key questions of interest to Congress are: (1) Is the United States vulnerable to supply disruptions of REEs? (2) Are these elements essential to U.S. national security and economic well-being?

There are 17 rare earth elements (REEs), 15 within the chemical group called lanthanides, plus yttrium and scandium. The lanthanides consist of the following: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Rare earths are moderately abundant in the earth’s crust, some even more abundant than copper, lead, gold, and platinum. While more abundant than many other minerals, REEs are not concentrated enough to make them easily exploitable economically. The United States was once self-reliant in domestically produced REEs, but over the past 15 years has become 100% reliant on imports, primarily from China, because of lower-cost operations.

U.S.-based Molycorp has begun production at its Mountain Pass mine and anticipates production at full capacity (19,050 metric tons) in 2014. Molycorp also operates a separation plant at Mountain Pass, CA, and sells rare earth concentrates and refined products from newly mined and previously mined above-ground stocks. Molycorp announced its purchase of Neo Materials Technology (renamed Moly Canada), a rare earth processor and producer of permanent magnet powders which has facilities in China.

Some of the major end uses for rare earth elements include use in automotive catalytic converters, fluid cracking catalysts in petroleum refining, phosphors in color television and flat panel displays (cell phones, portable DVDs, and laptops), permanent magnets and rechargeable batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, generators for wind turbines, and numerous medical devices. There are important defense applications, such as jet fighter engines, missile guidance systems, antimissile defense, space-based satellites, and communication systems.

World demand for rare earth elements was estimated at 136,000 tons per year, with global production around 133,600 tons in 2010. The difference was covered by previously mined aboveground stocks. World demand is projected to rise to at least 160,000 tons annually by 2016 according to the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia. Some mine capacity at Mt. Weld Australia has come on-stream in 2012, but far below the projected 11,000 metric tons of capacity. Other new mining projects could easily take as long as 5-10 years to reach production. In the long run, however, the U.S. Geological Survey expects that global reserves and undiscovered resources are large enough to meet demand.

In March 2012, the Obama Administration announced the filing of a World Trade Organization case against China, citing unfair trade practices in rare earths. A final decision is expected to be announced in early 2014. Several legislative proposals have been introduced in the 113
th Congress in the House and Senate to address the potential of U.S. supply vulnerability and to support domestic production of REEs and other critical minerals because of their applications for national security/defense systems and clean energy technologies. On September 18, 2013, the House passed H.R. 761, The National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013.

Date of Report: December 16, 2013
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R41347
Price: $29.95

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