For all the dazzling innovation, the technology rests on modest foundations. A number of little-known ores and metals make up the inside of smartphones, solar panels, and rechargeable batteries. If the world wants to move faster and cleaner, it needs an abundant supply of so-called rare earth minerals as well as sophisticated software and good ideas.
The substances are everywhere and near the surface. So far, most of the recoverable deposits are in a province in China that refines and sells production. This reality raises concerns that the supply could be interrupted or offered at high prices at Beijing's whim. The drive for green technology could stall and the economy as a whole would suffer.
The policy makers here take the problem further. But there has to be research and investment before the US can develop its own pipeline. Buried in this month's omnibus stimulus bill is a measure aimed at accelerating the road to independence. The idea of Rep. Eric Swalwell, an East Bay Democrat, instructs the Department of Energy to develop plans for the domestic development of minerals such as lithium, titanium and other niche metals. A similar plan is taking shape in the Senate.
The ingredients are essential, especially as technology advances. If electric car fleets are to grow, there must be more batteries made from rare earth minerals. Medical devices, room control systems, and the spot-sized brain in smartphones all need substances. The Pentagon relies on materials for precision-guided weapons, armored vehicles and night vision goggles.
Rare earth materials are a collection of 17 substances with names that come straight from a chemically spelled bee. An iPhone needs neodymium for the magnets that are used in smartphone speakers. Cerium is used to polish phone surfaces during manufacture and europium is used to create colors on screens. Better known names are lithium, graphite and cobalt.
The urge for home supplies has generated resistance. Republicans have rejected Swalwell's plan in the past, saying it invaded private industry with undesirable regulation. Some Democrats were also concerned about environmental damage that could occur if rare earth mining went too far. The objections were to recycle older electronics for the materials rather than digging up new supplies. A new leadership at the federal energy authority under the administration of Biden must bring these objections into line.
However, the strategic side of the problem cannot be denied. About 80% of the rare earth minerals come from China, which leads to a throttling point. In the heyday of globalization, when nations felt free to rely on the world market, there was less reason to be angry about one-stop shopping. This country's deteriorating relations with Beijing have changed the picture.
“I don't consider China an ally,” said Swalwell.
There's a good chance this country will make up for lost time. The value of the minerals was first determined during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project. There are inactive mines across the country, including California. China took the lead when the cost here rose, a financial advantage that gave this nation the market. It has also lined up mining rights in other locations around the world to keep them under control, much like the oil countries in the Middle East once had with oil supplies.
Now that the need has exploded, it is time to find other sources. Europe, Canada and Australia are developing and investing in rare earth sources. But this nation still has to provide its own supplies. Federal research can help here. The market is already moving on its own, although additional encouragement is needed.
“I believe it's a bigger vulnerability than it was when we needed oil and resources to power ourselves,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who heads the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The economy, national security, and the future of technology all depend on reliable access to these vital minerals. Washington should make sure that there is a steady supply.
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