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What are rare earth elements, and why are they important?

As technology advances, rare earth elements have become more important, but what are they, and why do they matter?

Rare earth elements, a group of 17 metals, are not actually that rare. They are found in relative abundance and are often found together in various different mineral types. The difficult part about extracting and using them is the separation and refinement process, which is largely controlled by China.

The elements range in price and scarcity, and there is a difference between light rare earths and heavy rare earths, with the heavy elements fetching higher market prices than the light ones.

The uses for rare earths are as diverse as they are important. The elements are used to produce smartphones, digital cameras, flat-screen TVs, computer hard disks, LED lights, computer monitors, and other devices that have grown in use over the past several decades.

Crucially, they are also used in clean energy products, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Jane Nakano, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Examiner that she thinks that a major reason why demand for rare earths is likely to increase is because of the clean energy industry.

Permanent magnets, which are used in wind turbines, and certain types of batteries, which are used to power electric vehicles, are among two of the products that use rare earths. The United States projects that wind energy will also grow over the next decade, and global electric car sales are forecast to see nearly 52% annual compounded growth from now until 2025, according to a projection by IHS Markit.

Not only are rare earths used in clean energy, but they also have defense applications as well. The elements are incorporated into missile guidance systems, jet engines, satellites, lasers, and night vision goggles.

China controls about 80% of U.S. imports of rare earth metals and compounds, and some lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are hoping to break China’s grip on the global rare earth elements market in case it decides to block the export of the valuable elements into the U.S.

“China’s near monopoly of the rare-earth supply chain, including its control of the vast majority of the world’s rare-earth metallurgical manufacturing capacity, is a major threat to our national security and economic security,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told the Washington Examiner in a statement this week. “To truly secure our rare earth supply chains, the United States must ensure domestic metallurgical manufacturing capabilities.”

U.S. rare earth production is minimal compared to that of China but is expected to ramp up in the future. MP Materials Corp. operates the only functioning U.S. rare earth element mine, Mountain Pass in California. While it has plans to build a separation facility, it still ships the raw product to China for separation. Other future projects include a separation facility and mine in Alaska and two projects in Texas.

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