Rare Earth Metals Production is No Longer Monopolized by China
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.
|Year||U.S. Production (metric tons)||China’s Production (metric tons)||ROW Production (metric tons)||U.S. % Share||China’s % Share|
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.
Why Copper Is a Critical Mineral
From the electrical grid to EVs, copper is a key building block for the modern economy.
Why Copper is a Critical Mineral
Copper is critical for everything from the electrical grid to electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.
But despite copper’s indispensable role in the modern economy, it is not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list.
This infographic from the Copper Development Association shows what makes copper critical, and why it should be an officially designated Critical Mineral.
Copper’s Role in the Economy
Besides clean energy technologies, several industries including construction, infrastructure, and defense use copper for its unique properties.
For example, copper is used in pipes and water service lines due to its resistance to corrosion and durable nature. As the Biden Administration plans to replace all of America’s lead water pipes, copper pipes are the best long-term solution.
Copper’s high electrical conductivity makes it the material of choice for electric wires and cables. Therefore, it is an important part of energy technologies like wind farms, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and the grid. The demand for copper from these technologies is projected to grow over the next decade:
|Energy Technology||Annual Copper Demand Growth (2021-2035P)||Use of Copper|
|Offshore wind||23.3%||Undersea cables, generators, transformers|
|Battery storage||21.8%||Transformers, wiring|
|Automotive*||14.0%||Batteries, motors, charging infrastructure|
|Solar PV||11.9%||Wiring, heat exchangers|
|Onshore wind||9.8%||Cabling, transformers, substations|
|Electrical transmission||7.2%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
|Electrical distribution||2.7%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
*excludes internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
Furthermore, policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will bolster copper demand through energy and infrastructure investments.
Given its vital role in numerous technologies, why is copper not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list?
Copper and the Critical Minerals List
The USGS defines a Critical Mineral as having three components, and copper meets each one:
- It is essential to economic and national security.
- It plays a key role in energy technology, defense, consumer electronics, and other applications.
- Its supply chain is vulnerable to disruption.
In addition, copper ore grades are falling globally, from an average of 2% in 1900 to 1% in 2000 and a projected 0.5% in 2030, according to BloombergNEF. As grades continue falling, copper mining could become less economical in certain regions, posing a risk to future supply.
The current USGS list of Critical Minerals, which does not include copper, is based on supply risk scores that use data from 2015 to 2018. According to an analysis by the Copper Development Association using the USGS’ methodology, new data shows that copper meets the USGS’ supply risk score cutoff for inclusion on the Critical Minerals list.
Despite not being on the official list, copper is beyond critical. Its inclusion on the official Critical Minerals list will allow for streamlined regulations and faster development of new supply sources.
The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society, to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Click here to learn more about why copper should be an official critical mineral.
Visualizing 25 Years of Lithium Production, by Country
Lithium production has grown exponentially over the last few decades. Which countries produce the most lithium, and how has this mix evolved?
Lithium Production by Country (1995-2021)
Lithium is often dubbed as “white gold” for electric vehicles.
The lightweight metal plays a key role in the cathodes of all types of lithium-ion batteries that power EVs. Accordingly, the recent rise in EV adoption has sent lithium production to new highs.
The above infographic charts more than 25 years of lithium production by country from 1995 to 2021, based on data from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.
The Largest Lithium Producers Over Time
In the 1990s, the U.S. was the largest producer of lithium, in stark contrast to the present.
In fact, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of global lithium production in 1995. From then onwards until 2010, Chile took over as the biggest producer with a production boom in the Salar de Atacama, one of the world’s richest lithium brine deposits.
Global lithium production surpassed 100,000 tonnes for the first time in 2021, quadrupling from 2010. What’s more, roughly 90% of it came from just three countries.
|Rank||Country||2021 Production (tonnes)||% of Total|
|#8||United States 🇺🇸||900||1%|
|Rest of World 🌍||102||0.1%|
Australia alone produces 52% of the world’s lithium. Unlike Chile, where lithium is extracted from brines, Australian lithium comes from hard-rock mines for the mineral spodumene.
China, the third-largest producer, has a strong foothold in the lithium supply chain. Alongside developing domestic mines, Chinese companies have acquired around $5.6 billion worth of lithium assets in countries like Chile, Canada, and Australia over the last decade. It also hosts 60% of the world’s lithium refining capacity for batteries.
Batteries have been one of the primary drivers of the exponential increase in lithium production. But how much lithium do batteries use, and how much goes into other uses?
What is Lithium Used For?
While lithium is best known for its role in rechargeable batteries—and rightly so—it has many other important uses.
Before EVs and lithium-ion batteries transformed the demand for lithium, the metal’s end-uses looked completely different as compared to today.
|End-use||Lithium Consumption 2010 (%)||Lithium Consumption 2021 (%)|
|Ceramics and glass||31%||14%|
In 2010, ceramics and glass accounted for the largest share of lithium consumption at 31%. In ceramics and glassware, lithium carbonate increases strength and reduces thermal expansion, which is often essential for modern glass-ceramic cooktops.
Lithium is also used to make lubricant greases for the transport, steel, and aviation industries, along with other lesser-known uses.
The Future of Lithium Production
As the world produces more batteries and EVs, the demand for lithium is projected to reach 1.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by 2025 and over 3 million tonnes by 2030.
For context, the world produced 540,000 tonnes of LCE in 2021. Based on the above demand projections, production needs to triple by 2025 and increase nearly six-fold by 2030.
Although supply has been on an exponential growth trajectory, it can take anywhere from six to more than 15 years for new lithium projects to come online. As a result, the lithium market is projected to be in a deficit for the next few years.
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