The Search for Rare Earths

The Search for Rare Earths

Recent rumors that China had effectively banned rare metal exports to Japan over a thorny territorial dispute have thrust the issue of rare earth elements to the fore. With demand rising and Beijing continuing to tighten its stranglehold over the dwindling supply of rare earths, other countries are now scrambling to secure their own access to the key strategic resource.

The 17 varieties of rare earth elements, which are scattered across the Earth's crust, are essential components in important technology products ranging from televisions and cell phones, to precision-guided missiles and hybrid cars. Approximately 130,000 tons of rare earths are produced worldwide each year, and some industry forecasts project that rising demand may cause a 40,000-ton annual global shortfall by as early as 2015.

China, which accounts for 97 percent of global rare earth production and 60 percent of consumption, has understandably become the center of attention. Since Deng Xiaoping's push in the 1980s for domestic innovation in China, Beijing has developed an impressive array of institutes, laboratories and researchers devoted to the study of rare earths to fuel its economic development.

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