Rare Earth Elements: How the U.S. Shoots Itself in the Foot

The Ed - icon sizeContributed by Ed

Being an engineer, I love to talk about rare earth elements (REEs).  I can be very chatty about the magic of their F orbitals, what it means to their quantum mechanical properties, and so forth.  I have done that to my poor, long suffering wife of 38 years, and after she snaps out of her tech induced trance she quickly changes the subject to one that she knows something about.  Still, if you look around the house, rare earths abound in the energy efficient appliances, in the fluorescent light bulbs, in LED lighting, in your cell phone displays, in your computer disk drives, in batteries, etc.  Here is a longer list:

REEs uses at home(Image Credit)

Okay, I know the list was getting way too geeky.  At least I spared you the periodic table.  But there is a point.  Rare earths have become a part of our everyday lives.  They are relevant to all of us, even if most don’t realize it.

Rare earth production is for all intents and purposes the property of China.  That is where they are mined and refined.  It’s also where the devices that use them are made.

Rare earth supply and demand(Image Credit)

China is king of the rare earth supply.  But why is that?  There are other geographical sources of rare earths.  REE’s are found in the ground almost everywhere.  India, Brazil, Russia and other countries also have minable concentrations.  Here in the U.S., we have a greater supply of rare earths than China has.  In the U.S. there are 14 states that have significant rare earth deposits.  Go to the beaches of northeastern Florida.  There are monazite-sand deposits right there on the beach.  Okay, I am getting geeky again.  Monazite is the ore for rare earth metals.  They are also found in the tailings (leftovers) of titanium mines, which means they can be found in other states, like Virginia, as well.  This map shows the minable U.S. deposits of REEs:

US rare earth deposits(Image Credit)

So if we are that rich in rare earth deposits, why do we have to rely on China for our rare earth supply?

The one-word answer:  thorium.

Thorium is a weakly radioactive element found with almost every rare earth deposit.  When a miner digs out rare earth deposits he digs out thorium with it.  There are not enough uses of thorium to do anything more than put it back in the ground.  But he can’t.  Our nuclear regulations will not allow him to put it back where it came from.  He can pick it up, but he can’t put it right back down.

Thorium decayTo understand just how weakly radioactive thorium really is, start with the idea that there is a fixed amount of energy in each gram of thorium.  Left to radiate forever half of that gram will be done radiating 14 billion years from now.  The sun will become a red giant and consume the earth before that happens.

As shown here, eventually thorium decays to lead.  (Yes dear, I am being geeky again.  I am what I am.)  Along the way for each step, either an alpha particle (a helium atom) or a beta particle (an electron) gets thrown out.  These particles (the radiation) don’t go very far.  A little bit of just about anything will stop them.

(Image Credit)

Our government does not know what to do with its own stockpiles other than expensively store them forever.

LANL storage of thorium(Image Credit)

The scene pictured above is Los Alamos National Labs.  It has 3200 metric tons of thorium-nitrate in 20,000 drums.  Note that the man in the picture is not wearing a radiation suit.  It seems that the barrels provide plenty of shielding from the radiation that comes from thorium.  The lab wants to ship these barrels to Nevada.

Deng XiaoPing and CarterWhat to do with the thorium does not worry China.  This is why China is the king of the rare earth production in the world. They are storing thorium cheaply.

As Deng Xiaoping, the 4’ 11” leader of China boasted in 1992: “The Middle East has oil.  China has rare earths.”

(image credit)

Since China does not over-regulate thorium as the rest of the world does, China is the king of the rare earths.  They have further decreed that their rare earths will be for China first.  If a U.S. company wants a rare earth item manufactured with uninterrupted supplies of rare earths then that company has to bring their manufacturing line and their intellectual property to China.

In 2012 Barrack Obama articulated the World Trade Organization’s case against China and their rare earth policy:  “We want our companies building those products right here in America,” Obama said. “But to do that, American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials which China supplies [without having to commit our manufacturing jobs to China too]. Now, if China would simply let the market work on its own, we’d have no objections.”

Chinas protectionist REE policy(image credit)

With their lax environmental rules, China is creating a lot of pollution in their mining, refining and production of rare earth elements.  At the other extreme, our draconian over-regulations make rare earth production here in the U.S. prohibitory.  There has to be a balance.  Since China currently has no motivation to change its trade policies, if we want manufacturing to return here to the U.S. we have to adopt regulations that make economic sense.

The infrastructure to mine, refine and separate the rare earth elements does not exist here in the over-regulated U.S.  If and when some economic balance is restored to our environmental regulations, it will still be years before that infrastructure is built and the U.S. can compete with China on a global scale.  Raising public awareness is the way to begin to push our government to stop strangling the common sense out of ourselves.  (See dear, I am a geek on a mission to boost America’s economy!)


About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control. https://necessaryandpropergovt.wordpress.com/
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8 Responses to Rare Earth Elements: How the U.S. Shoots Itself in the Foot

  1. There’s another element to the US-China balance of activity on rare earth elements. Under the Clinton administration and since, the US has allowed China to obtain control of facilities within the US that might have been competitors. I’m a bit geeky myself, and wrote about this a decade ago when it surfaced as part of a Hillary Clinton charge against the Bush administration, accusing them of selling crucial rare-earth mining and manufacturing technology to China.

    Of course, it wasn’t Bush, it was Clinton — as part of his raising money from Communist China during the Chinagate deal. The buyers for GM’s Magnaquench were a front company for San Huan New Material and China National Nonferrous Metals Import and Export Company. San Huan was run by China’s Deng Xioping’s son-in-law. Nice and cozy. They also got in return a letter from Clinton authorizing China’s communist military leaders access to our military (and missile!) bases.

    Some 95 people were subpoenaed or indicted in the US over these transactions. Most fled, some went to jail, and an appellate court ruled that the Democrat National Committee was on the hook for their trial defense costs. But the transactions were done already, and those opportunities are gone. Clinton gave money back to the communists, but we could not get the lost technology back.

    And, not coincidentally, wind turbines need large quantities of the expensive rare-earth materials, allowing China to all-but-commandeer that market as well. Of course, wind turbine bearings go quickly (something people are just starting to realize), so their maintenance costs are seriously understated on essentially every renewables business plan in the world. We knew wind power was not reliable … but it is also not cheap even when it runs.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


  2. The Ed says:

    I cannot argue with anything you are saying. Crony capitalism is another aspect of this crime against our industrial base. And yes, the wind turbines that the left is pushing as green energy do not last. I could also add that they are too expensive to connect to the grid so that they are not practical even if they did last.
    The web being weaved is huge beyond the description of a mere blog. There have been many books written on the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, they only touch the surface. I doubt we will ever know the full extent of the Clinton perfidy.
    The last part that I should add to this is that regulations often both consciously and unconsciously have effects other than what is intended. In this case control of rare earths has been ceded to China. Intellectual property has been transferred to China. Because we don’t profit from it the balance of rare earth know how is tipping toward China. And we will be a long time recovering from this mistake if we ever recover at all.

    Thanks Keith.


    • On the “don’t profit from it” business … that wasn’t actually a key factor, from the evidence I’d seen. The sale was propelled by the crony relationship between the unions and the government: GM was in such a firm grip by the unions and in such dire financial straits as a result that they had to raise money fast. Magnaquench was profitable and thus of high value; they could raise nearly $80 million dollars fast on a contrived deal, with a Democrat connected to the White House as nominal front man for Beijing.

      To sweeten the pot for the Chinese, who were working closely with the White House at this time, the EPA went after US rare earth element sources. The major US mine, the second-largest REE mine in the world, was shut down right after the Chinese completed their transaction on the manufacturing. So we couldn’t mine it, refine it, manufacture it, or use a US-sourced producer of REE for our needs. And our needs? Precision guided weaponry.

      Coincidentally, we also supplied China with precision missile guidance circuitry at the same time. I was accidentally involved in that in a very peripheral way as a client for the missile launch.

      We now buy those precision guidance parts from China. When we found compromising code in the components a few years ago (including keystroke loggers for passwords) we quietly said “China, please don’t do this” but continued to buy weapons systems from them, and expanded our purchases to include controls for drones and fighter jets. Our military has been told “don’t look too closely at the components; it’s a really good price.”

      No doubt, we’ll be getting defense-crucial components from Iran soon. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been visiting the White House a lot recently; perhaps we’ll outsource something crucial to them as well.

      I’ve been looking around on the Magnaquench deal; here are some details that note a few of the points mentioned above.

      By the way, something that was always potentially confusing. Democrat Archibald Cox, Jr. is the son of Democrat Archibald Cox, Jr. — the family did not like Roman numerals. The father, the man hired to prosecute Richard Nixon, died a decade ago. About the same time, the son (involved in the China deals) sold his modest little New York City apartment purchased about the time of the Magnaquench deal … and he got $17 million for it.

      Evidently, being a front man is lucrative.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


  3. The Ed says:

    Thanks Keith. So is our government criminal, stupid or both?


    • Evidently some of each, with quite a few that are both.

      Now, how do we fix this? There’s an engineering challenge for you.

      Best wishes.

      ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


      • The Ed says:

        I have no idea how to engineer common sense and decency.


        • Our Founders, and specifically the Framers, were trying to engineer a system that would allow us the freedom to work out our own lives, using the decency and common sense that was much more common at the time.

          Progressives wish to engineer a statist utopia by massive control of and limitation of options, applying “negative liberties” to us instead of to the government. And since America’s culture was its strong point, and family its foundation, culture and family had to be eliminated — which in practice means changed beyond all recognition. One of many poor results has been the evaporation of much of what used to be common sense.

          Recently, I’ve had occasion to see the vulgar, sexually charged bilge that passes for children’s fare on television. I don’t watch TV myself, but I’ve seen what the grandkids are absorbing as their role models. On-screen cartoon sex, and absolutely miserable treatment and degradation of other humans — decency is indeed being engineered out of society.

          ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle


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