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Rare Earth Metals Production is No Longer Monopolized by China

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rare earth metals production over time

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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Energy Shift

Rare Earth Elements: Where in the World Are They?

Rare earth elements are the critical ingredients for a greener economy, making their reserves increasingly valuable to global supply chains.

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Rare Earth Elements Reserves

Rare Earths Elements: Where in the World Are They?

Rare earth elements are a group of metals that are critical ingredients for a greener economy, and the location of the reserves for mining are increasingly important and valuable.

This infographic features data from the United States Geological Society (USGS) which reveals the countries with the largest known reserves of rare earth elements (REEs).

What are Rare Earth Metals?

REEs, also called rare earth metals or rare earth oxides, or lanthanides, are a set of 17 silvery-white soft heavy metals.

The 17 rare earth elements are: lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), lutetium (Lu), scandium (Sc), and yttrium (Y).

Scandium and yttrium are not part of the lanthanide family, but end users include them because they occur in the same mineral deposits as the lanthanides and have similar chemical properties.

The term “rare earth” is a misnomer as rare earth metals are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust. However, they are rarely found in large, concentrated deposits on their own, but rather among other elements instead.

Rare Earth Elements, How Do They Work?

Most rare earth elements find their uses as catalysts and magnets in traditional and low-carbon technologies. Other important uses of rare earth elements are in the production of special metal alloys, glass, and high-performance electronics.

Alloys of neodymium (Nd) and samarium (Sm) can be used to create strong magnets that withstand high temperatures, making them ideal for a wide variety of mission critical electronics and defense applications.

End-use% of 2019 Rare Earth Demand
Permanent Magnets38%
Catalysts23%
Glass Polishing Powder and Additives13%
Metallurgy and Alloys8%
Battery Alloys9%
Ceramics, Pigments and Glazes5%
Phosphors3%
Other4%
Source

The strongest known magnet is an alloy of neodymium with iron and boron. Adding other REEs such as dysprosium and praseodymium can change the performance and properties of magnets.

Hybrid and electric vehicle engines, generators in wind turbines, hard disks, portable electronics and cell phones require these magnets and elements. This role in technology makes their mining and refinement a point of concern for many nations.

For example, one megawatt of wind energy capacity requires 171 kg of rare earths, a single U.S. F-35 fighter jet requires about 427 kg of rare earths, and a Virginia-class nuclear submarine uses nearly 4.2 tonnes.

Global Reserves of Rare Earth Minerals

China tops the list for mine production and reserves of rare earth elements, with 44 million tons in reserves and 140,000 tons of annual mine production.

While Vietnam and Brazil have the second and third most reserves of rare earth metals with 22 million tons in reserves and 21 million tons, respectively, their mine production is among the lowest of all the countries at only 1,000 tons per year each.

CountryMine Production 2020Reserves% of Total Reserves
China140,00044,000,00038.0%
Vietnam1,00022,000,00019.0%
Brazil1,00021,000,00018.1%
Russia2,70012,000,00010.4%
India3,0006,900,0006.0%
Australia17,0004,100,0003.5%
United States38,0001,500,0001.3%
Greenland-1,500,0001.3%
Tanzania-890,0000.8%
Canada-830,0000.7%
South Africa-790,0000.7%
Other Countries100310,0000.3%
Burma30,000N/AN/A
Madagascar8,000N/AN/A
Thailand2,000N/AN/A
Burundi500N/AN/A
World Total243,300115,820,000100%

While the United States has 1.5 million tons in reserves, it is largely dependent on imports from China for refined rare earths.

Ensuring a Global Supply

In the rare earth industry, China’s dominance has been no accident. Years of research and industrial policy helped the nation develop a superior position in the market, and now the country has the ability to control production and the global availability of these valuable metals.

This tight control of the supply of these important metals has the world searching for their own supplies. With the start of mining operations in other countries, China’s share of global production has fallen from 92% in 2010 to 58%< in 2020. However, China has a strong foothold in the supply chain and produced 85% of the world’s refined rare earths in 2020.

China awards production quotas to only six state-run companies:

  • China Minmetals Rare Earth Co
  • Chinalco Rare Earth & Metals Co
  • Guangdong Rising Nonferrous
  • China Northern Rare Earth Group
  • China Southern Rare Earth Group
  • Xiamen Tungsten

As the demand for REEs increases, the world will need tap these reserves. This graphic could provide clues as to the next source of rare earth elements.

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Electrification

Electric Car Companies: Visualizing the Race for EV Dominance

Tesla was the first automaker to hit a $1 trillion market cap, but other electric car companies have plans to unseat the dominant EV maker.

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Visualizing the race for EV Dominance

Electric Car Companies: Eating Tesla’s Dust

Tesla has reigned supreme among electric car companies, ever since it first released the Roadster back in 2008.

The California-based company headed by Elon Musk ended 2020 with 23% of the EV market and recently became the first automaker to hit a $1 trillion market capitalization. However, competitors like Volkswagen hope to accelerate their own EV efforts to unseat Musk’s company as the dominant manufacturer.

This graphic based on data from EV Volumes compares Tesla and other top carmakers’ positions today—from an all-electric perspective—and gives market share projections for 2025.

Auto Majors Playing Catch-up

According to Wood Mackenzie, Volkswagen will become the largest manufacturer of EVs before 2030. In order to achieve this, the world’s second-biggest carmaker is in talks with suppliers to secure direct access to the raw materials for batteries.

It also plans to build six battery factories in Europe by 2030 and to invest globally in charging stations. Still, according to EV Volumes projections, by 2025 the German company is forecasted to have only 12% of the market versus Tesla’s 21%.

CompanySales 2020 Sales 2025 (projections)Market cap (Oct '21, USD)
Tesla499,0002.8M$1.023T
Volkswagen Group230,0001.5M$170B
BYD136,000377,000$113B
SGMW (GM, Wulling Motors, SAIC)211,0001.1M$89B
BMW48,000455,000$67B
Daimler (Mercedes-Benz)55,000483,000$103B
Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi191,000606,000$39B
Geely40,000382,000$34B
Hyundai -Kia145,000750,000$112B
Stellantis82,000931,000$63B
Toyota 11,000382,000$240B
Ford 1,400282,000$63B

Other auto giants are following the same track towards EV adoption.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, wants to stop selling fuel-burning cars by 2035. The company is making a big push into pure electric vehicles, with more than 30 new models expected by 2025.

Meanwhile, Ford expects 40% of its vehicles sold to be electric by the year 2030. The American carmaker has laid out plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in electric and autonomous vehicle efforts in the coming years.

Tesla’s Brand: A Secret Weapon

When it comes to electric car company brand awareness in the marketplace, Tesla still surpasses all others. In fact, more than one-fourth of shoppers who are considering an EV said Tesla is their top choice.

“They’ve done a wonderful job at presenting themselves as the innovative leader of electric vehicles and therefore, this is translating high awareness among consumers…”

—Rachelle Petusky, Research at Cox Automotive Mobility Group

Tesla recently surpassed Audi as the fourth-largest luxury car brand in the United States in 2020. It is now just behind BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz.

The Dominance of Electric Car Companies by 2040

BloombergNEF expects annual passenger EV sales to reach 13 million in 2025, 28 million in 2030, and 48 million by 2040, outselling gasoline and diesel models (42 million).

As the EV market continues to grow globally, competitors hope to take a run at Tesla’s lead—or at least stay in the race.

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