China's REE Threat to Revitalize U.S. Mines?

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"Supply chains for REEs may soon get a jump-start."

Action is heating up in the world of rare earth elements (REEs). China has blocked REE exports to Japan. And, like the U.S., Japan is heavily dependent on REE imports from China. But China currently dominates the market for producing REEs, accounting for ~95% of worldwide supply. (A spokesperson with China's Ministry of Trade and Economic Cooperation yesterday denied that the country put in place an official trade embargo.)

The shutoff of rare earth exports to Japan isn't expected to have a significant short-term effect, because Japanese companies have been stockpiling REEs for years to reduce their vulnerability to possible supply shortages, says Technology Metals Research Cofounder Gareth Hatch. In that sense, China's move may be not be felt as anything more than a shot across the bow, according to Hatch, who added: "But the symbolism goes way beyond the actual impact," he says.

"It is precisely this type of vulnerability in the overall REE supply chain that makes it important for Japan and other countries to diversify their supply chains for rare earths," adds Hatch.

That diversification may soon get a jump-start. Today, the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee approved legislation to authorize funding by the DOE for a $70M research and development center to study new ways to mine and process REEs. The bill also contains authorization for DOE to fund a loan-guarantee program designed to restart U.S. REE-mining operations.

China has tightened its grip over its own REEs in order to supply domestic manufacturers—and lure manufacturers to China. That's produced price spikes of three- to eightfold. But between the price hikes and the threats of rare earths shortages, mining operations in the United States and other countries could soon be on the rise.

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