LiveScience has written a piece about the rare earth element market, a collection of seventeen metals that are indispensable for high-tech applications. Just 124,000 metric tons were mined last year, and one of the concerns about this market is that about 95 percent of the rare earth metal supply is produced in just one country - China. The market is already in short-supply, and China has warned last year that its own industrial demands could compel it to stop exporting these elements within the next five or ten years.
According to new figures from USGS the US holds rare earth ore reserves of up to 13 million metric tones, but little of these sites are being developed due to the high costs involved. More info over here.
"No one [in the U.S.] wants to be first to jump into the market because of the cost of building a separation plant," Hedrick explained. The former USGS specialist said that such a plant requires thousands of stainless steel tanks holding different chemical solutions to separate out all the individual rare earths.
The upfront costs seem daunting. Hedrick estimated that opening just one mine and building a new separation plant might cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion and would require a minimum of eight years.
Lifton has also suggested that many U.S. companies have not jumped into the market because China's state-owned mines keep rare earth prices artificially low. But if U.S. companies do not begin mining American rare earth deposits soon, they may be left scrambling if China does one day stop exporting rare earths.