China’s control of rare earth minerals positions the nation as the green OPEC of the future. China controls the vast majority of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals which are vital to a wide range of new technologies.
Rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanoids plus scandium and yttrium. However, because of their geochemical properties rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms known as rare earth minerals (REMs).
All other countries producing rare earth minerals are dwarfed by the scale of Chinese production. China now produces approximately 97% of the world’s rare earth supply, mostly in Inner Mongolia. All of the world’s heavy rare earths (such as dysprosium) come from Chinese rare earth sources such as the polymetallic Bayan Obo deposit.
REMs are a crucial part of many modern technologies, including clean technologies like hybrid car batteries and wind turbine motors. REMs are essential to modern electronic devices, rechargeable batteries, electric motors, photo optics, solar cells and strong magnets.
China has understood the strategic and technological importance of REMs for a long time. Almost 20 years ago, Communist Party Leader Deng Xiaoping said in a radio broadcast from China National Radio, “There is oil in the Middle East. There is rare earth in China.”
The surging importance of cleantech is driving demand for REMs. The current generation of hybrid cars alone each require between 23 and 25 pounds of REMs. By 2015, there are likely to be over 10 million battery-powered cars on the road around the world. This translates to 250 million pounds of REMs for hybrid and fully electric vehicles in the next few years.
China is driving the green economy forward, and the green economy is driving the demand for REMs. With the vast majority the world’s reserves of REMs under Chinese control, this puts China in the enviable position of controlling some of the earth’s most important natural resources.
© 2011, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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