FEB 28, 2014 12:00 AM PST

The Geopolitics of Rare Chemicals for New Technologies

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
Since the discovery of oil and its rise into one of the world's most important energy sources, oil has been a major player in geopolitics. It's conceivable that new energy technologies may eventually settle these conflicts by reducing dependence on oil and the traditional hierarchies associated with it-but it's more likely to start an entirely new round of similar geopolitical arguments, merely shifting the players and their positions of leverage. In fact, this jostling for position in exotic materials has already started.

The U.S. government has begun to take stronger action. The Department of Energy has identified several rare earth elements as critical supply chain materials for new technologies, and recently established the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) at the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University. The fifth of the DOE's Energy Innovation Hubs, the CMI is an integrated research center combining researchers and engineers from different backgrounds and disciplines to focus on solving (and preventing) domestic shortages of strategic materials for new technologies.

CMI will address DOE-designated critical materials such as the rare-earth elements yttrium, europium, dysprosium, terbium, and neodymium; and will concern themselves with more common semiconductor and battery elements such as lithium, gallium, indium, and tellurium. They are receiving up to $120 million dollars over the next 5 years to fulfill their mission.
The rare earths are a bit of a misnomer-most are considerably more common than precious metals such as platinum and gold, and may be found in ore deposits across the globe. A local abundance of these materials can radically shift economic policy-for example, Bolivia holds close to half of the known world reserves of lithium, and hopes to capitalize on increased lithium demand.

For some time, China has been the dominant producer of rare earths, supplying over 90% of the world's supply. Their ability to supply these materials at lower cost, combined with limited demand, made the mining/refining operations less profitable in other countries.

Three things have changed the calculus: swings in demand, increased understanding of the strategic importance, and tightening of the Chinese supply. In 2010, China cut rare earth exports dramatically, citing environmental concerns with their production. Other countries, fearing a hoarding situation, lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO recently ruled against China in October 2013, but an appeal is expected.

Since that time, demand has leveled off a bit as other countries have invested in their own supplies-increasing extraction and refining efforts, improving recovery methods from industrial waste streams and recycling of discarded electronics products, or both.

Many new and greener technologies rely on rare earth elements that have the ability to reshape the global supply chain. How these materials are controlled, sold, and distributed can have drastic consequences-ultimately affecting not only the ability to make advances in research, but also in the ability to bring promising technologies to market. Countries in control of these assets will be major players in shaping the global economy of the next 2-3 decades.

It's not obvious how these issues will resolve themselves, but one thing is clear-the race for supremacy in strategic and unusual metals, with names many folks have never heard of, has begun.
About the Author
You May Also Like
MAR 22, 2022
Technology
Reducing "Foreign Body Reactions" to Implantable Devices
MAR 22, 2022
Reducing "Foreign Body Reactions" to Implantable Devices
Implantable devices have proven useful for a range of health conditions. For example, pacemakers, implantable insulin pu ...
MAR 28, 2022
Technology
New "Quantum Battery" Makes Charging an Electric Vehicle as Quick as Pumping Gas
MAR 28, 2022
New "Quantum Battery" Makes Charging an Electric Vehicle as Quick as Pumping Gas
The adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) has skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, the EV market is expected to continue ...
MAR 31, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Asteroid Ryugu: Remnant of an ancient comet?
MAR 31, 2022
Asteroid Ryugu: Remnant of an ancient comet?
Asteroids might look like boring balls of rock, but these fossils often hold many clues about the evolution and formatio ...
APR 07, 2022
Cannabis Sciences
Top 10 Best Cannabis Grinders for Sale in 2022
APR 07, 2022
Top 10 Best Cannabis Grinders for Sale in 2022
Searching for high-quality and unique weed grinders for sale in 2022? World of Bongs is a fantastic online smoke shop fo ...
APR 25, 2022
Technology
Wearables Highlight Physiological Reactions to COVID-19 Vaccine
APR 25, 2022
Wearables Highlight Physiological Reactions to COVID-19 Vaccine
How people felt after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine has been the topic of significant debate for a while now. It was re ...
MAY 16, 2022
Chemistry & Physics
A Strange 'Black Widow' Pulsar Candidate in Our Galaxy
MAY 16, 2022
A Strange 'Black Widow' Pulsar Candidate in Our Galaxy
Pulsars are remnants of dead stars that die by the process of supernova explosion. These explosions often leave either a ...
Loading Comments...