WASHINGTON -- It’s probably no accident that Congress has decided to take up what is for lawmakers the esoteric issue of rare earth elements. It’s election season, after all, and the fact that China controls an estimated 96.8 percent of rare earth materials production makes Beijing an easy target for nervous politicians looking for a foreign bogeyman. It’s also far easier to blame China for our economic woes than it is for politicians to take responsibility for the mess.
This is not to downplay the significance of the issue. The global electronics industry is making wider use of rare earth elements for products ranging from advanced batteries used in hybrid vehicles and advanced magnets to phosphors used in LED lighting. Moreover, it appears that China is leveraging its monopoly in the mining and processing of rare earth materials to manipulated world markets through export limits.
The issue even played a role in the last month’s standoff between China and Japan over the release of a Chinese ship caption whose vessel had collided with Japanese Coast Guard ships in disputed waters. The Chinese captain was released after Beijing cut off Japan’s access to rare earth materials.
The situation with rare earth elements is akin to the state of American oil refineries. As of 2008, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, rare earth elements were not being mined in the U.S. Similarly, no new U.S. oil refineries have been built for years.
Hence, it seems obvious to us that for national security reasons the U.S. should look for ways to renew the mining and processing of rare earth elements while at the same time instituting programs similar to those in Japan designed to recycle rare earth elements in consumer electronics and other products. At the same time, the industry should begin immediately to look for alternative materials for producing new products. The search for new materials has already begun in areas like advanced batteries for electric cars.
What is needed is less demagoguery on the rare earth issue and more technology innovation. The relative scarcity of rare earth elements in fact presents an opportunity for U.S. innovation in materials research, product design and manufacturing technology. As with foreign oil, the U.S. should seek to reduce, within physical limits, its current dependency on foreign sources of rare earth elements.
Japan is already doing this. According to reports, Japanese manufacturing giant Hitachi has developed new hybrid car engine technology that eliminates the need for expensive rare earth materials. Hitachi’s motor uses a ferrite magnet based on ferric oxide material widely used in the steel industry. Japanese universities are also are reportedly working on new composite materials for making powerful magnets previously made using rare earth elements.
Surely, the folks at MIT and Caltech can roll up their sleeves and come up with similar advances in new materials for a host of current and new applications.
In 2008, the '70s American band Rare Earth staged a comeback with "A Brand New World." It's time for brand new thinking on the industry's response to it rare earth problems,
Then maybe we can remaster those Rare Earth eight-track tapes and sell them to the Chinese.