China syndrome / Rare Earth elementsUnease grows about China's rare Earth elements monopoly

Published 18 October 2010

Rare Earth elements are quite abundant in the Earth’s crust, but environmental concerns and aggressive subsidies by China’s government to Chinese manufacturers have led to a Chinese near-monopoly: 90 percent of the world’s rare Earth elements are now being mined and processed in China; growing unease with this Chinese dominance has led to renewed efforts around the world to develop alternatives to rare Earth elements, and find environmentally sound ways to mine them

The Tesla Roadster does not use rare-earth metal magnets // Source:

For three weeks, China has blocked shipments of rare Earth minerals (“rare earths” for short) to Japan, a move that has boosted the urgency of efforts to break Beijing’s control of these minerals. China now produces nearly all of the world’s supply of rare earths, which are crucial for a wide range of technologies, including hard drives, solar panels, and motors for hybrid vehicles (“Is rare Earth elements war in the offing?” 28 September 2010 HSNW).

In response to China’s dominance in rare earths production, researchers are developing new materials that could either replace rare Earth minerals or decrease the need for them. Materials and technologies will likely take years to develop, and existing alternatives come with trade-offs (“Industrial nations anxious about China’s rare Earth elements policy,” 5 October 2010 HSNW).

Adam Aston writes in Technology Review that China apparently blocked the Japan shipments in response to a territorial squabble in the South China Sea. Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters last Tuesday.

Rare earths comprise seventeen elements, such as terbium — which is used to make green phosphors for flat-panel TVs, lasers, and high-efficiency fluorescent lamps. Neodymium is key to the permanent magnets used to make high-efficiency electric motors. Although well over 90 percent of the minerals are produced in China, they are found in many places around the world, and, in spite of their name, are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust (the name is a hold-over from a nineteenth-century convention). In recent years, low-cost Chinese production and environmental concerns have caused suppliers outside of China to shut down operations.

Aston notes that alternatives to rare earths exist for some technologies. One example is the induction motor used by Palo Alto, California-based Tesla Motors in its all-electric Roadster. It uses electromagnets rather than permanent rare-Earth magnets. Such motors are larger and heavier than ones that use rare-Earth magnets, however. “As a rule of thumb, in small- and mid-sized motors, an electromagnetic coil can be replaced with a rare-Earth permanent magnet of just 10 percent the size, which has helped make permanent magnet motors the preferred option for Toyota and other hybrid vehicle makers,” Aston writes. In Tesla’s case, the induction motor technology was worth the trade-off, giving the car higher maximum power in more conditions, a top priority for