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US Scours for Rare Earths to End Addiction to Chinese Imports

US Scours for Rare Earths to End Addiction to Chinese Imports

Feb. 10, 2020
China supplied about 80% of U.S. rare earths imports in the three years ended 2018, leaving Washington vulnerable had Beijing weaponized the critical minerals at the height of trade war between the countries.

The U.S. government is scouring the country and elsewhere for potential rare earths reserves to wean the nation off its dependence on Chinese imports of minerals used to make missiles and cellphones.

“We’ve been almost 100% dependent on foreign sources of rare earth elements for industrial applications,” Jim Reilly, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said. “It’s not only the domestic sources of the resource that we concentrate on. We look for those resources literally across the globe, and then we build collaboration with our partners.”

China supplied about 80% of U.S. rare earths imports in the three years ended 2018, leaving Washington vulnerable had Beijing weaponized the critical minerals at the height of trade war between the countries. While the signing of a phase-one deal eased tensions, the Trump administration remains determined to boost domestic output and seek alternative suppliers.

The U.S. is also in search of “friendly” sources of rare earths overseas that the government could collaborate within securing the material, Reilly said in an interview.

The Pentagon is looking for companies that can supply rare earths crucial to weapons systems. Last month, the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio called for proposals from firms showing they’re capable of stockpiling a six-month inventory of neodymium iron boron, which makes the world’s most powerful magnets and is used in the Javelin anti-tank missile, Bloomberg Government reported.

In 2019, U.S. rare earth production climbed 44% to 26,000 metric tons, from a year earlier, the USGS said in a report Feb. 6. The entire output was shipped overseas for processing, according to the agency.

Consumption rose 12% to 13,000 tons last year, all of which was met by imports, according to USGS.

Ohio-based Materion Corp. said in December that it’s teaming up with Canada’s Ucore Rare Metals Inc. to bid for a U.S. program to build a rare earth pilot processing plant. Ucore CEO Jim McKenzie said the U.S. Defense Department may fund more rare earth processing plants for weapons development.

 By Luzi Ann Javier and Justina Vasquez

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