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Rare Earth Metals Production is No Longer Monopolized by China

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Rare Earth Elements: The Technology Metals

In the midst of our daily hustle and bustle, we often don’t notice the raw materials that go into the technologies we rely on.

Rare earth metals, also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, are one such group of raw materials. From this group of 17 minerals, many are found in a range of technologies—from our smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Rare Earth Metals Production Over the Years

Despite the relative abundance of rare earth deposits, extracting them from the ground is difficult, and preparing them for usage entails significant environmental risks.

The U.S. was the world’s leading producer of rare earth metals from the 1960s to the 1980s. However, China took the helm in the 1990s and has been the dominant producer ever since.

YearU.S. Production (metric tons)China’s Production (metric tons)ROW Production (metric tons)U.S. % ShareChina’s % Share
198513,4288,50017,75734%21%
199022,71316,48020,91738%27%
199522,20048,0009,70028%60%
20005,00073,0005,5006%87%
20050119,0003,0000%98%
20100120,00011,0000%92%
20155,900105,00019,1005%81%
202038,000140,00062,00016%58%

In 1985, China introduced a policy that partially refunded the taxes paid by domestic producers of rare earths, which lowered costs for Chinese mining companies. This, in addition to lax environmental regulations and cheap labor, made China’s rare earth industry increasingly competitive. In fact, its production increased 464% between 1985 and 1995.

Meanwhile, in California, the Mountain Pass Mine struggled to compete with Chinese producers while facing stringent environmental regulations. Therefore, the U.S. share of production declined from 34% in 1985 to 6% in 2000 before ceasing completely in 2002.

Putting Rare Earths in Different Baskets

In 2010, China slashed its rare earth export quotas by 37%, pushing rare earth prices to all-time highs. This, in turn, fueled an influx of capital into the rare earth mining industry and kickstarted mining in other countries.

Namely, Australia saw a 672% increase in rare earth production over the last decade, and more recently, Myanmar entered the mix—producing 30,000 metric tons of rare earths in 2020. Additionally, the Mountain Pass Mine is undergoing a revival following an investment from MP Materials in 2018. As a result, the U.S. share of production is growing again.

While the mining of rare earth metals is diversifying, 80% of refining still occurs in China. With the demand for rare earths projected to double by 2030, building both mining and refining capacity overseas may prove key in reducing reliance on China.

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Mapped: U.S. Mineral Production, by State

This infographic breaks down $90.4 billion in non-fuel mineral production by state.

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Mapped: U.S. Non-fuel Mineral Production, by State

Just how many minerals does the U.S. consume? In 2020, non-fuel mineral consumption worked out to around 19,000 pounds or 8.6 tonnes per person.

This includes metals like copper, iron ore, and zinc, along with construction sand, stone, cement, and other industrial minerals. With such high demand, changes in the production of these commodities often reflect how the overall economy is performing.

The above infographic maps U.S. non-fuel mineral production by state in 2021 using data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The Most Valuable Minerals

As the U.S. economy restarted in 2021, American mines generated over $90 billion in non-fuel mineral production, a 12% increase from 2020.

Before diving into the breakdown by state, here’s a look at production value by mineral type:

CategoryProduction value% of Total
Metals$33.8B37.4%
Construction aggregates$29.2B32.3%
Industrial minerals (excl. construction)$27.4B30.3%
Total$90.4B100%

Each of the categories accounted for roughly one-third of the total production value, with metals making up the largest share. Within metals, copper and gold collectively accounted for 66% of the total, followed by iron ore (13%) and zinc (7%).

The production of sand, gravel, and crushed stone—important inputs for construction—also made up a significant chunk of the value, along with other industrial minerals. Furthermore, crushed stone was the leading non-fuel mineral in 2021, with $19.3 billion in production value.

Which States Lead in Mineral Production?

Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, and Minnesota—the top five states—accounted for nearly 40% of non-fuel mineral production value.

StateValue of Non-fuel Mineral Production% of Total
Arizona$10B11.0%
Nevada$9.4B10.3%
Texas$5.8B6.4%
California$5.3B5.8%
Minnesota$4.0B4.4%
Alaska$3.9B4.3%
Utah$3.8B4.1%
Missouri$3.3B3.7%
Michigan$3.0B3.3%
Wyoming$2.8B3.0%
Florida$2.4B2.7%
Georgia$2.0B2.3%
Montana$2.0B2.2%
Pennsylvania$2.0B2.2%
Alabama$1.9B2.1%
Colorado$1.6B1.8%
New York$1.6B1.7%
Tennessee$1.6B1.7%
Virginia$1.6B1.7%
North Caroline$1.5B1.6%
Ohio$1.4B1.5%
New Mexico$1.3B1.4%
Kansas$1.2B1.3%
Indiana$1.2B1.3%
Arkansas$1.0B1.1%
Wisconsin$1.0B1.1%
Illinois$1.0B1.1%
Iowa$0.96B1.1%
South Carolina$0.95B1.1%
Oklahoma$0.92B1.0%
Washington$0.73B0.8%
Idaho$0.72B0.8%
Louisiana$0.66B0.7%
Oregon$0.60B0.7%
Kentucky$0.59B0.6%
South Dakota$0.50B0.5%
Maryland$0.46B0.5%
New Jersey$0.40B0.4%
West Virginia$0.36B0.4%
Nebraska$0.22B0.2%
Massachusetts$0.21B0.2%
Mississippi$0.20B0.2%
Connecticut$0.18B0.2%
Hawaii$0.13B0.1%
Maine$0.13B0.1%
Vermont$0.11B0.1%
New Hampshire$0.095B0.1%
Rhode Island$0.066B0.07%
North Dakota$0.065B0.07%
Delaware$0.022B0.02%
Undistributed4.0B4.5%
Total$90.4B100.0%

Arizona and Nevada, the top two states, are the country’s biggest producers of copper and gold, respectively. Arizona also produced over $1 billion worth of construction sand and gravel in 2021, in addition to being the country’s leading producer of gemstones.

In third place was Texas, where mines produced nearly $6 billion worth of non-fuel minerals, of which 38% came from crushed stone. California, meanwhile, led in the production of construction sand and gravel, and was the country’s sole source of rare earth elements.

Minnesota also made the top five as the nation’s largest producer of iron ore. In fact, mines in Minnesota and Michigan shipped 98% of domestic usable iron ore products in 2021.

The Missing Critical Minerals

Although the U.S. is a major producer of non-fuel minerals, it still relies on imports for the supply of several minerals.

In 2021, the U.S. imported $5.3 billion worth of raw materials, in addition to $90 billion in net imports of processed mineral materials. Of the 50 minerals deemed critical to national security, the country was 100% net import reliant for 26, including graphite, manganese, and several rare earth metals.

To meet the rising demand for these minerals, U.S. President Biden announced major investments in domestic critical mineral production, including a $35 million grant to MP Materials for the processing of rare earths.

It remains to be seen whether these investments will pay off in building more resilient, end-to-end domestic critical mineral supply chains.

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Technology Metals

The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

This graphic lists all minerals that are deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

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The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

The U.S. aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 as part of its commitment to tackling climate change, but might be lacking the critical minerals needed to achieve its goals.

The American green economy will rely on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, along with the electrification of transportation. However, local production of the raw materials necessary to produce these technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, is lacking. Understandably, this has raised concerns in Washington.

In this graphic, based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, we list all of the minerals that the government has deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

What are Critical Minerals?

A critical mineral is defined as a non-fuel material considered vital for the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies, whose supply may be at risk. This can be due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy, or other factors.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a list of 35 critical minerals. The new list, released in February 2022, contains 15 more commodities.

Much of the increase in the new list is the result of splitting the rare earth elements and platinum group elements into individual entries rather than including them as “mineral groups.” In addition, the 2022 list of critical minerals adds nickel and zinc to the list while removing helium, potash, rhenium, and strontium.

Mineral Example UsesNet Import Reliance
BerylliumAlloying agent in aerospace, defense industries 11%
AluminumPower lines, construction, electronics 13%
ZirconiumHigh-temparature ceramics production 25%
PalladiumCatalytic converters40%
GermaniumFiber optics, night vision applications50%
LithiumRechargeable batteries 50%
MagnesiumAlloys, electronics 50%
NickelStainless steel, rechargeable batteries 50%
TungstenWear-resistant metals50%
BariteHydrocarbon production75%
ChromiumStainless steel75%
TinCoatings, alloys for steel 75%
CobaltRechargeable batteries, superalloys76%
PlatinumCatalytic converters 79%
AntimonyLead-acid batteries, flame retardants 81%
ZincMetallurgy to produce galvanized steel 83%
TitaniumWhite pigment, metal alloys88%
BismuthMedical, atomic research 94%
TelluriumSolar cells, thermoelectric devices95%
VanadiumAlloying agent for iron and steel96%
ArsenicSemi-conductors, lumber preservatives, pesticides 100%
CeriumCatalytic converters, ceramics, glass, metallurgy100%
CesiumResearch, development100%
DysprosiumData storage devices, lasers100%
ErbiumFiber optics, optical amplifiers, lasers100%
EuropiumPhosphors, nuclear control rods 100%
FluorsparManufacture of aluminum, cement, steel, gasoline100%
GadoliniumMedical imaging, steelmaking100%
GalliumIntegrated circuits, LEDs100%
GraphiteLubricants, batteries100%
HolmiumPermanent magnets, nuclear control rods100%
IndiumLiquid crystal display screens 100%
LanthanumCatalysts, ceramics, glass, polishing compounds100%
LutetiumScintillators for medical imaging, cancer therapies 100%
ManganeseSteelmaking, batteries 100%
NeodymiumRubber catalysts, medical, industrial lasers 100%
NiobiumSteel, superalloys100%
PraseodymiumPermanent magnets, batteries, aerospace alloys100%
RubidiumResearch, development in electronics 100%
SamariumCancer treatment, absorber in nuclear reactors 100%
ScandiumAlloys, ceramics, fuel cells100%
TantalumElectronic components, superalloys100%
TerbiumPermanent magnets, fiber optics, lasers100%
ThuliumMetal alloys, lasers 100%
YtterbiumCatalysts, scintillometers, lasers, metallurgy 100%
YttriumCeramic, catalysts, lasers, metallurgy, phosphors 100%
IridiumCoating of anodes for electrochemical processesNo data available
RhodiumCatalytic converters, electrical componentsNo data available
RutheniumElectrical contacts, chip resistors in computersNo data available
HafniumNuclear control rods, alloysNet exporter

The challenge for the U.S. is that the local production of these raw materials is extremely limited.

For instance, in 2021 there was only one operating nickel mine in the country, the Eagle mine in Michigan. The facility ships its concentrates abroad for refining and is scheduled to close in 2025. Likewise, the country only hosted one lithium mine, the Silver Peak Mine in Nevada.

At the same time, most of the country’s supply of critical minerals depends on countries that have historically competed with America.

China’s Dominance in Minerals

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is the single largest supply source of mineral commodities for the United States.

Cesium, a critical metal used in a wide range of manufacturing, is one example. There are only three pegmatite mines in the world that can produce cesium, and all were controlled by Chinese companies in 2021.

Furthermore, China refines nearly 90% of the world’s rare earths. Despite the name, these elements are abundant on the Earth’s crust and make up the majority of listed critical minerals. They are essential for a variety of products like EVs, advanced ceramics, computers, smartphones, wind turbines, monitors, and fiber optics.

After China, the next largest source of mineral commodities to the United States has been Canada, which provided the United States with 16 different elements in 2021.

The Rising Demand for Critical Minerals

As the world’s clean energy transitions gather pace, demand for critical minerals is expected to grow quickly.

According to the International Energy Association, the rise of low-carbon power generation is projected to triple mineral demand from this sector by 2040.

The shift to a sustainable economy is important, and consequently, securing the critical minerals necessary for it is just as vital.

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