- In 2019, China was responsible for 80% of rare earths imports, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, although exports fell last year in part due to Covid-19.
- Rare earths elements are more abundant than their name suggests but extracting, processing and refining the metals poses a range of technical, political and environmental issues.
- The Biden administration and Department of Energy have targeted rare earths among domestic supply chain priorities as they outline ambitious climate and technology policy.
The United States has made previous attempts to reemerge as a dominant player in a rare earths supply chain that is responsible for some of the most important materials involved in electric vehicle production, battery making, renewable energy systems and technology manufacturing. Under the Biden administration, the effort is receiving renewed focus, with massive investments planned in climate change technology and a hard line being taken on geopolitical rivalries and the national security threat posed by China.
In 2019, China was responsible for 80% of rare earths imports, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, although exports fell last year in part due to Covid-19.
President Biden's sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure legislation seeks to remake the power and transportation markets in the U.S. and rebuild the country's semiconductor industry. It follows Biden signing an executive order in February designed to review gaps in the domestic supply chains for rare earths, medical devices, chips and other key resources, and in March the Department of Energy announcing a $30 million initiative that will tap into researching and securing the U.S. domestic supply chain for rare earths and other important minerals in battery-making such as cobalt and lithium.
'Cornering of the market'
"It's absolutely correct there is a cornering of the market with lithium and other rare earths," Biden climate envoy John Kerry recently said at a CNBC Evolve summit on the future of energy innovation.
But efforts in the recent past to rival China in the rare earths market and rebuild a domestic industry have been stymied.
"It's technically possible to try and rebuild the entire supply chain because we once had it," says Jane Nakano, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies' Energy Security and Climate Change Program. "It's not that we're not experienced, it's not that we have no idea of what the domestic supply chain may look like," Nakano said, but she added that business, environmental and political factors may make the effort difficult to achieve, especially over a short-time frame.
Success is dependent on whether the U.S. can quickly scale up processing and refining after the mining of the resources, and compete on cost with a magnet-making and processing market that's heavily dominated by China. Once extracted from mines, rare earths are shipped to separation facilities, where they are separated from other minerals. Then rare earths are individually separated into oxides, metals and finally magnets that are used in everything from missiles to wind turbines, medical devices, power tools, cellphones and motors for hybrid and electric vehicles.
China's rare earths dominance
Rare earth metals are actually more abundant than their name suggests but extracting, processing and refining are tricky for a myriad of technical and environmental reasons. These 17 elements — which are subdivided into the light rare earths and heavy rare earths subsets based on their atomic weights — exist in natural deposits globally.
Heavy rare earths are often harder to source. They include metals like dysprosium and terbium, which play a critical role in defense, technology and electric vehicles. Neodymium and praseodymium are some of the most sought-after light rare earth elements crucial in products such as motors, turbines and medical devices. Demand for them exploded in recent years with the growth of technology and will continue to climb amid the ongoing race to create a large electric vehicle market.
While China is dominant now, in the decades before the 1980s it was the U.S. that held a majority stake in this metals market. That changed as production growth abroad and mounting environmental pressures at home shifted production overseas and also offered cheaper labor costs. According to one 2018 report from the Department of Defense, China "strategically flooded the global market" with rare earths at cheaper prices to drive out and deter current and future competitors.
"If the material specification fits, and the price is a dollar better, then you go for the dollar better," said Koray Kose, senior director of supply chain research at Gartner.
The three most important materials used in magnets include neodymium, dysprosium and terbium. Terbium is one of the toughest to come by because production, extraction and magnet-making are focused on China. Trade wars and retaliatory tariffs can leave many companies sourcing these crucial materials in limbo, even if they make up just a small portion of a product.
Market dynamics can escalate so quickly that companies without a diversified supply chain bid aggressively, materials get scarce and prices go up, Kose said. In 2011, for example, rare earth prices shot up when China restricted exports to maintain supplies for domestic industries, which was the case again during the 2019 trade war.
Rebuilding a domestic supply chain
Domestic efforts to extract rare earths are taking place in states including Wyoming, Texas and California, but the recent past provides cautionary tales, such as Molycorp, which reopened the longstanding Mountain Pass mine in California in the early 2000s, only to go bankrupt in 2015.
MP Materials bought the mine and restarted production in 2017. The Las Vegas-headquartered company is vying to restore the domestic rare earths supply chain from mine to magnet, and is hedging its bets on neodymium-praseodymium, with the hope of becoming the lowest-cost producer.
In recent years, the Las Vegas-headquartered company received a myriad of grants and contracts from the Department of Defense and Department of Energy to research and improve domestic capabilities. One of the company's largest customers is Shenghe Resources, a Chinese company responsible for processing, distributing and refining, which also owns a stake in the company. The connection raised some concerns among DOE scientists, according to Reuters, but government funding has continued for a rare earths separation facility.
Shenghe Resources distributes the concentrate produced at Mountain Pass to refiners in Asia, "capabilities that simply do not exist at scale in the West," according to an MP Materials spokesman.
The company plans to reinvest the free cash flow generated from operations into expanding MP's U.S. capabilities, including a restoration of domestic refining capability at Mountain Pass by next year. Ultimately, the company, which went public last year through a SPAC merger, plans to "restore the full rare earth supply chain" to the U.S., the spokesman said, including refining and separation, and magnet-making by 2025, as the domestic electric vehicle market ramps up production.
"This is happening and I think it's happening much much faster than I think anybody had anticipated," said Ryan Corbett, the company's chief financial officer. "We can compete and we're going to continue to do it."
Another key player in the space is Lynas Corporation, one of the largest processors of rare earths outside China. The Australian mining company, which operates a separation facility in Malaysia, recently received $30.4 million in funding from the Pentagon to build a Texas light rare earths processing facility and earned another contract, in partnership with Blue Line Corp., also based in Texas, to build a heavy rare earths separation facility.
A Lynas spokeswoman referred to the new facilities in an email to CNBC as an "essential foundation" for renewing downstream metal making and implementing magnet manufacturing into the U.S. She wrote that diversifying outside the Chinese magnetic materials supply chain is important to create competitive markets and meet the growing demand for 21st-century technologies.
Resource extraction and the environment
While companies like Lynas and MP Materials are eager to ramp up the domestic supply chains, extracting rare earths is a difficult process due to a combination of environmental, technical and political factors. Many regions, including the European Union, have an abundance of these resources but lack the expertise that other countries like China have in the processing and magnet production, Nakano said.
The rare earths industry has come under fire for environmental concerns. Many rare earth elements reside among mineral deposits with radioactive materials that can leach into the water table. Mining, processing and disposal can also contribute to ecosystem disruption and release hazardous byproducts into the atmosphere.
Although the U.S. is making strides to advance the rare earths supply chain and develop alternatives to mining rare earths, environmental regulations are often more stringent than inside China. In recent years, Lynas came under scrutiny from activists and the Malaysian government for radioactive waste that it produces as part of its enrichment process. Lynas has said that the low-levels of radioactive waste were not dangerous and the Malaysian government ultimately renewed the license and green-lighted a construction plan for a permanent disposal and waste treatment facility in August 2020.
Some companies have proposed extracting rare earths from coal, while others suggest setting up a system for recycling old batteries or disk drives. Suggestions include calls to utilize shipping services like Amazon or USPS to set up a recycling system, but these endeavors can be costly, Nakano says. Recycling of key raw materials used in the EV space is receiving greater investment focus. Some emerging battery recycling leaders include Redwood Materials, a start-up from former Tesla CTO JB Straubel, and Li-Cycle, which recently announced plans to go public through a SPAC-merger.
The Ames Laboratory in Iowa is one of the many Department of Energy's national laboratories working on projects aimed at substituting rare earths or finding new, more eco-friendly methods to recover them. One initiative by researcher Ikenna Nlebedim is a rare-earth magnet recycling process designed to recover rare earth oxides, without the hazardous acids or fumes associated. Scientists are also using the process to recover byproducts like copper and nickel. Another laboratory in Idaho is looking at how potato wastewater can be used as a cheap food source for a bacterium that can assist in recycling rare earths.
"We already have the magnets here," says Tom Lograsso, director of DOE's Critical Materials Institute at Ames. "Why can't we just retain that and close the circle domestically rather than throwing them in a landfill."
Limits to countering China
In a recent interview with CNBC following the UAE's Regional Climate Dialogue, Kerry addressed the president's $2 trillion infrastructure proposal in relation to rivalry with China. The legislation includes $35 billion for climate research and innovation, $46 billion in renewable energy manufacturing and $174 billion to boost the electric vehicle market. China, which accounts for roughly 30% of carbon dioxide emissions globally, claims it plans to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2060 and outspent the U.S. roughly 2-to-1 on energy transition-related investments in the last decade, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance data.
"I think that this is a huge economic opportunity, not just for the United States, with people all around the world," Kerry said. "This is not about China, this is not a counter to China. This is about China, the United States, India, Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Australia, a bunch of countries that are emitting a pretty sizable amount, the United States and China the most."
On April 17, Kerry and his Chinese government counterpart issued a joint statement on climate change cooperation.
While the U.S. aims for raw materials self-sufficiency, any drastic move away from China and other Asia-based supply chains would dramatically affect American consumers as domestic demand for batteries and electric vehicles ramps up. The pace of demand growth is expected to rise rapidly over the next few years as sales of electric vehicles are slated to reach 12.2 million in 2025, according to data from IHS Markit.
Building a strong U.S. supply chain can increase competition in the market, and the market is becoming more focused on the price impacts of rising demand for EVs across raw materials, which could drive up battery prices by 18% and more than double the cost of commodities like cobalt and lithium, Goldman Sachs analysts noted last month.
To meet rare earths demand without global supply chains, though, would require the U.S. to reach "massive levels of production," and build out an extraction and production chain that could take up to a decade, Nakano said. The best course, for now, is to work with allies, such as the European Union, to reduce reliance on dominant players like China.
"Once you achieve that, let's say ten, twenty years from now, then everyone can start looking at making a truly domestic supply chain," she said.
— CNBC's Natasha Turak contributed to this report.