We've become totally dependent on China for the "rare earth elements" that make modern life possible

Never underestimate the capacity of the Left to shoot itself in the foot — and injure the rest of us in the process. The New American reports:

Most of their pet “alternative energy” projects — solar panels, hybrid and electric car batteries, wind turbine magnets, compact fluorescent light bulbs, etc. — are dependent upon “rare earth elements” that have been made all but unobtainable here in the United States, thanks in significant measure to environmental [regulations]. Over the past two decades, various environmental laws and regulations have closed down mining operations for these elements in this country, making us almost completely dependent on the communist government of China, which now produces 97 percent of the world’s supply of these important minerals [even though it only has 37 percent of proven reserves.] Now that China has announced it intends to dramatically cut its quotas of rare earth exports, including to the United States, the Obama administration has expressed concern.

“We are very concerned about China’s export restraints on rare earth materials. We have raised our concerns with China and we are continuing to work closely on the issue with stakeholders,” an anonymous spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said in a statement carried by news services. The administration also says it will complain about the quota reduction to the World Trade Organization.

Don’t let the name “rare earth” mislead you: Most of the 17 “rare-earth” metals are anything but rare. For example, even the least two abundant, Lu and Tm, are nearly 200 times more common than gold. Cerium, the most abundant REE, is more plentiful in the earth’s crust than copper or lead. Many of them are more common than tin, and all but promethium are more common than silver or mercury. The problem is that they are dispersed in forms that make them much harder to extract than those other elements.

Rare earth elements, or REEs, are those elements in one particular section of the periodic table of elements: lanthanum and the fourteen elements following it (together, called the lanthanide series), plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and have exhibit many of the same chemical properties.

These elements were little more than a curiosity until the advent of “green technology” in the late twentieth century.

Their relatively low toxicity, combined with unique magnetic properties, quickly made rare earth metals vital to green technology. The USGS fact sheet [“Rare Earth Elements — Critical Resources for High Technology”] gives a detailed account of the environmental uses of rare earth metals. Some of these are:

  • Lanthanum could replace the much more toxic cadmium and lead in batteries leading to more environmentally friendly disposal and recycling.
  • Cerium could replace heavy metals in the commercial pigmentation industry.
  • The magnets in a 3 megawatt wind turbine use up to two tons of neodymium and other rare earth metals.
  • [A report published in the British newspaper] The Independent claims [that] the Toyota Prius automobile, the premier hybrid car in the world, uses up to 1 kg of neodymium in the electric motor and between 10 and 15 kg of lanthanum in the electric battery.

The U.S. has some of the largest known REE deposits. According to the U.S. Geological Service, the U.S. had, as of 2010, 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements. Unfortunately, according to The New American,

like many other minerals that have been put off-limits through environmental edicts, [REEs] have been made artificially rare…. Now there is a mad scramble to re-open some of these mines, as rare earth mining stocks have soared and green activists have reversed themselves in order to advance their “earth friendly” hobby horse technologies.

It did not take a crystal ball to see that the environmentalist attack on the rare earth mining industry would bring the serious consequences we now face. The New American warned about this repeatedly over the past two decades, including in this article, Engineered Extinction, in December, 2003. It reported:

Unfortunately, because of our anti-mining regulatory climate, we are now dependent on foreign producers for many of these vital materials. The case of the Mountain Pass Mine in California’s Mojave Desert is a prime example of the destructive power of the envirocrats. Mountain Pass, the world’s largest lanthanide mine, is a treasure trove of rare earth minerals like samarium, lanthium, europium and neodymium. The mine owner, Molybdenum Corporation of America, invested millions of dollars developing uses for these exotic elements in televisions, miniaturized motors, long-lasting lightbulbs, super magnets, and hi-tech military applications. Thanks to these efforts, the U.S. led the world in rare earth production and sparked a revolution in the use of these important minerals. But federal and state regulators shut the mine down on environmental pretexts.

Don Fife, a professional geologist and columnist, called the government action a “regulatory outrage” and “the coup de grace for America’s rare earth industry.” “With Mountain Pass Mine out of business,” says Fife, “we are dependent on foreign sources for our supply of these minerals. Since other countries produce only small amounts of rare earths, nearly all of these militarily strategic minerals now come from Communist China.”

This table will give you some idea of how utterly dependent our modern technological society is on these elements. ( I’ve omitted promethium, which has no known uses.)

Element Uses
Scandium Alloys for aerospace industry; sports equipment; metal halide lamps
Yttrium Television cathode-ray tubes; LEDs; spark plugs; catalysts; mantles for propane lanterns; microwave filters; lasers; strengthener for aluminum and magnesium alloys; camera lenses; cancer therapies; arthritis treatments; superconductors
Lanthanum High-end lenses for cameras and telescopes; catalysts; carbon lighting; ignition elements in lighters and torches; scintillators; gas lantern mantles; water treatment; pharmaceuticals; tracers in molecular biology; nickel-metal hydride batteries, including especially those used in hybrid cars
Cerium Catalysts in self-cleaning ovens and in petroleum refining; heat-resistant alloys; magnets; analytical chemistry; carbon arc lighting, especially in the film industry; gas tungsten arc welding; glass polishing powders; phosphors for screens and fluorescent lamps; pharmaceuticals; etching of electronic components; fuel additives for reducing vehicle emissions
Praseodymium Coloring glass and ceramics; catalysts; high-strength alloys used in aircraft engines; carbon arc lights used in film studios and movie projectors; achieving ultralow temperatures in physics research; fiber optical amplifiers; ignition elements in lighters and “flint” fire starters
Neodymium Coloring glass and ceramics; infrared radiation filtering; lasers; welder’s and glassblower’s goggles; astronomical spectroscopy; camera filters; incandescent light bulbs; powerful magnets (such as those used in wind generator turbines and hybrid cars)
Samarium High-strength magnets, especially when effectiveness at very high temperatures is needed; cobalt alloys; control rods in nuclear reactors; catalysts; geological dating; cancer treatment; lasers used in holography, astrophysics and high-resolution microscopy of biological specimens; pressure sensors and pressure-triggered memory devices; thermoelectric power converters
Europium Red phosphors and blue phosphors for color televisions and computer screens; “trichromatic” indoor lighting; compact fluorescent light bulbs
Gadolinium Contrast agents used for MRI scans; scintillators in PET imaging; gamma ray source for bone-density scans used in osteoporosis screening; high-temperature-resistant alloys; microwave applications; manufacture of optical components; green phosphors for TV screens and compact discs
Terbium “Green” (actually yellow) phosphors for color television and computer screens and fluorescent lamps; solid-state devices; stabilizers for fuel cells at high temperatures; sensors; naval sonar systems; biochemical probes; “trichromatic” indoor lighting
Dysprosium Control rods for nuclear reactors; data storage applications, such as hard disks; dosimeters; transducers; high-precision liquid fuel injectors; wide-band mechanical resonators; high-intensity lighting; nanofibers to strengthen materials or for use as catalysts; in drive motors for hybrid electric vehicles
Holmium Control rods in nuclear reactors; high-strength magnets; colorants for glass and cubic zirconia; spectrometer calibration; lasers for medical, dental and fiber-optical applications
Erbium Colorant for glass, porcelain and cubic zirconia; photographic filters; metallurgical additive; fiber-optical amplifiers used in communications; control rods for nuclear reactors; cryocoolers; high-power fiber lasers for metal welding and cutting applications; laser surgery; laser enamel ablation in dentistry
Thulium Radiation source for portable X-ray machines; lasers used for military, medical and meteorological applications; detecting flaws in inaccessible mechanical and electronic components; high-temperature superconductors; ceramic magnetic materials used in microwave equipment
Ytterbium Metallurgical and chemical experiments; optical and laser applications; some stainless-steel alloys

Sources: Chemical Elements.com; Wikipedia

New American continues:

REEs are essential for the increasingly ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries that power so many of our electronics today. And lithium-ion batteries are being held up as the saving technology that will power the electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) that the federal government says Americans must give up their gasoline-powered cars for. However, lithium mining has fallen victim to the same legislative and regulatory forces that killed America’s rare earth industry.

So let’s get this straight. Environmentalists want us to use hybrid cars, wind turbines, compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. But all of these “green” products require rare-earth elements — which we are not allowed to mine in this country because of “green” regulations! (Can you say “Catch-22”?) Instead, we must buy them from China, with whom we are running an annual trade deficit of over $273 billion, and which holds about $1.7 trillion in U.S. government debt. All while the U.S. sits on 13 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves.

It’s one thing if your enemy shoots you in the foot; but only a fool or a masochist shoots himself in the foot. And only a suicidal maniac shoots himself again and again and again.

It’s time to quit letting the lunatics run the asylum.