"Belatedly discovered in the late 19th century for the most part, rare earths are composed of fifteen elements (usually called the lanthanide in the periodic table of Mendeleev) plus two other elements, yttrium and scandium. They fall into two categories, the so-called "heavy" rare earths (HRE) which are the rarest (9 elements) and the "light" rare earths (LRE). Their use in future technologies with high added value and high prices make their availability critical for some industries.
According to various sources that come, more or less, all to the same conclusion, one quarter of new technologies that will appear in the coming years is based on the use of rare earths and the applications of these will grow by at minimum 10% per year for the next twenty years. This, we will see, result in a number of economic, environmental and geopolitical issues across countries and economic areas such as the EU, NAFTA or Japan.
Rare earths are flooding the everyday consumer products: from electronic components to TV screens through simpler things such as flints, it is almost impossible to switch without degrading the product performance, increase the final cost, even to do without them. Two examples illustrate the need for use of these metals: dysprosium, for example, would lighten the weight of the magnets composing the electric motors by 90% when terbium reduces consumption of light bulbs of nearly 80%.
Acceptance of progress implies to choose corollary the lesser of two evils. The only three possibilities to lower permanently the level of dependency (and to pay the bill that goes with it) are the own-account production, recycling and substitution. If these last two things are evolving in a less visible and less spectacular way than the diffusion of products using rare earths, it is however clearly where efforts must be made, failing to instigate a policy to produce more or less self-sufficiently.
In fact, if China does not have the geographical monopoly for extraction sites, however it still has for at least half a decade that of the exploitation of existing sites because of its refining capacity and processing units. China's reserves are estimated to last about 20 years and up to 30 years and time is for Beijing in this perspective, more than the price, a formidable weapon to require the transfer of high technologies on its territory, acquire strategic positions in economic sectors for the future or simply negotiate a secure supply of rare earths, through implementation of its / / soft power / / and the mobilization of its huge foreign currencies reserves.
By announcing semi-annually instead of annually to the world the quotas of rare earths exports and taking the freedom to change the nature of the mix of rare earths in its sole whim, China manages the suspense and makes unpredictable the planning for industries dependent on its supply: it is a loud and clear call to high-tech businesses to produce high technology on its territory and a warning on its ambitions, especially military.
Are we doomed to penury and programmed restrictions , suspended at the whim of the liberal-Communist power in Beijing, a handful of politically volatile African regimes and emerging countries, which will jealously retain their resources? "