Rare Earth Elements, or REEs, are found in items we use every single day in the United States, but before they reach our products, they must go through China’s supply chain. There are 17 elements known as REEs. While rare is in the name, most are more abundant in the earth’s crust than silver or gold. It’s the process to mine and refine those minerals that makes the elements rare.
"We’ve known for too long China is doubling the production of raw materials needed for critical products," President Biden said in July during a speech on Bidenomics.
The administration has been pushing for increased U.S. production of Rare Earth Elements and other critical minerals, as part of its economic agenda. But for years, efforts like the complex separation process and battery manufacturing have been dominated by China.
"It is a national security concern for a couple of reasons. The first being, probably a lot of those minerals are important in the fighting or defending of your country," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said. "But probably as important, if not more, is the fact that it's a critical supply chain to a growing economy. And anybody that can control those critical supply chains, whether it's critical minerals, energy, food they have, they have extra leverage over us and our allies."
REEs aren’t just used for defense. They’re found in resources crucial for a transition to clean energy like wind turbines or electric cars. They’re also found in items most American’s can’t live without – their cellphones. A single iPhone contains at least eight different REEs.
Elements like lanthanum and gadolinium help produce the colors on your screen, Neodymium and praseodymium create sounds through your speakers and your phone wouldn’t be able to vibrate without terbium and dysprosium. Nearly all the refining and manufacturing – to get those elements from the ground and into your iPhone – happen in China.
"The issue is, is that we have very limited, if no capability any longer here in the United States," Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration President Marc Le Vier said.
Demand is growing for REEs as technology becomes more complex. Rare Earths are necessary to make strong permanent magnets that are used in evolving technologies found in computer hard drives, medical equipment and renewable energy sources.
"There are abundant supplies in North America, in countries that are our allies and partners like Canada, in Europe, in countries like Norway, Sweden, Finland," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said.
Extracting the minerals from the ground is the first step in creating a rare earth magnet. China controls around 60% of those mining efforts. The U.S. accounts for around 15%, using its one active rare earth mine.
"They [China] have been very clever in going after the things that are really critical. And these supply chains are a major part of that. We have an opportunity now to respond, but we have to do it quickly," Cramer said.
MP Materials operates Mountain Pass Mine, located in California’s Mojave Desert. It helped the U.S. remain largely self-sufficient from the mid-1960s to the 1980s. Mountain Pass was eventually forced to close over regulatory problems. That’s when China started ramping up its rare earth mining efforts.
"We’re capable of running a very responsible mining program and a very safe mining program. And we have standards and best practices that we continue to operate under," Le Vier said. "We have a very high standard of ethics that we subscribe to and we maintain within our industry."
MP Materials acquired Mountain Pass in 2017 and quickly began ramping up mining operations.
"They [MP Materials] are making concentrate products, but they're not doing a lot of different separations of the individual elements," Le Vier said. "So those products are being shipped to China for separation, and so it goes back into their supply chain."
MP Materials says it started the separation – or refining – of REEs in recent months. It’s the first time the effort has happened on U.S. soil since 2015. It’s one of the most difficult steps in the production process. China controls around 90% of processed rare earths right now, but companies like MP Materials hope to change that.
China also controls more than 90% of rare earth magnet manufacturing.
"Rare earth magnets are the ultimate product," Le Vier said. "We used to have more magnet capability, but that exited the United States and went to China a number of years ago."
MP Materials is preparing to manufacture those magnets stateside – specifically for General Motors electric vehicles. The company expects to begin supplying material to GM later this year, to help with the car manufacturer’s goal of selling more than one million electric vehicles annually by 2025.
"China controls most of the global market in these minerals," President Biden said last year as part of an announcement on new investments in mineral production. "We can’t build a future that’s made in America, if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow."
Both the Biden administration and Trump administration have awarded grants and funding to companies investing in crucial magnet production, like MP Materials. However, it could be a long road ahead before the U.S. is able to supply all the rare earth magnets needed for the Biden administration’s clean energy agenda.
"Unfortunately, right now it feels like it's more of that flipping a light switch and that can't happen. It's going to take time to be able to put these facilities together."