China state media reports suggest the country is considering limiting exports of “rare earths” as the trade war with the U.S. escalates.Rare earths are a group of 17 elements used in everything from mobile phone cameras and automobile catalytic converters to wind turbines and MRI machines.Rare earths aren’t rare per se, but their distribution in the planet’s crust makes processing them difficult.China dominates the global supply of rare earths and accounted for almost 80% of exports to the U.S. last year.As trade tensions between Washington and Beijing intensify, China’s state media on Wednesday suggested it may play a new card — restricting U.S. access to “rare earths,” the chemical elements that are widely used in everything from mobile phones and other consumer electronics to wind turbines, MRI machines and military hardware.
China dominates global exports of the 17 elements that constitute rare earths, accounting for almost 80 percent of America’s imports last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Bank of America Merrill Lynch analysts. Other countries that supply rare earths to the U.S. include Australia, Estonia, France and Japan.Here’s a look at what rare earths are and why they could play an important role in the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.
Rare earths aren’t that rareThe 17 elements defined as rare earths aren’t as rare as their moniker suggests — gold, copper and platinum are more abundant and easier to mine, for instance. By contrast, rare earths are ubiquitous in modern life, and their use is likely to spread as technology advances. Cerium, used in compounds for catalytic converters in automobiles, is the most abundant and is more common in the earth’s crust than copper or lead, according to the USGS.The glass industry is the largest consumer of rare earths, which are used for polishing, additives for color and other special optical properties. One rare earth element, lanthanum, makes up as much as 50 percent of digital camera lenses, including cell phone cameras.So where does the name come from? Rare earths don’t get their name because of their scarcity; rather, they got that label in the 18th and 19th centuries because of their relative imperviousness to heat compared with other mined materials.Rare earths are found in such low concentrations around the world that they are harder to extract and refine, and not always found in commercially mineable quantities. As a result, a handful of countries account for the bulk of extraction, including China, Australia, Japan and Malaysia.China, which has roughly 40 percent of the global reserves of rare earths, accounted for almost 80 percent of U.S. imports of the elements last year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. One reason China is the global leader — it’s been pulling rare earths out of the ground for a long time. The country spent a century perfecting the refining method for extracting and refining rare earths in large enough quantities to keep costs manageable. China’s not-so-veiled threatChinese president Xi Jinping last week visited the country’s biggest rare-earths producer in an appearance that was broadcast on Chinese national television. The visit followed a U.S. crackdown on technology giant Huawei by President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this month, and was interpreted by experts as a signal that the Chinese government is weighing restrictions on rare-earth exports.China will try to meet global rare-earths demand as “long as they are used for legitimate purposes,” stated a commentary in the Xinhua news agency, a mouthpiece for Beijing. But later it added that “if necessary, China has plenty of cards to play.”