(Washington, DC) – Witnesses from both the public and private sectors warned Members of the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight that the lack of a domestic supply of rare earth minerals could severely affect the U.S.’s ability to manufacture advanced-technology products. A rare earth supply shortage would present a threat notably to the emerging clean energy industry but also to the telecommunications and defense sectors, according to testimony at a hearing on “Rare Earth Minerals and 21st Century Industry.”
“With a little of one of these elements you can get a smaller, more powerful magnet, or an aircraft engine that operates at higher temperatures or a fiber-optic cable that can carry your phone call much greater distances,” said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). “The United States, not so long ago, was the world leader in producing and exporting rare earths. Today, China is the world’s leader. If we intend to foster a home-grown capability to make the devices that provide wind energy, we need to rebuild America's capability to supply its own needs in rare earth materials.”
Full Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) noted that “this is not the first time the Committee has been concerned with the competitive implications of materials such as rare earths. In 1980—30 years ago—this Committee established a national minerals and materials policy to coordinate materials research and development,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately, over successive administrations, the effort to keep that program going fell apart. Now, it is time to ask whether we need to revive a coordinated effort to level the playing field in rare earths in order to support American business and American jobs.”
Between 2005 and 2008, 91 percent of U.S. consumption of rare earths came from China and 9 percent from other sources, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China is reducing exports of rare earth materials and is working to leverage its deposits tobring the manufacture of the high-value-added products containing rare earths to China’s Inner Mongolia region.
“We have to recognize that the Chinese have some different ideas about how to get the greatest benefit from this suddenly-valuable commodity beyond simply digging it up and selling it to those who want to use it in their high-tech manufacturing,” said Miller. “China appears to view rare earths as one of the incentives they can offer a technology firm scouting for a new plant location. We need to learn how to compete in attracting and retaining manufacturing firms that need access to rare earth elements in light of China’s current near monopoly, and their willingness to use their monopoly power to our disadvantage.”
U.S. supplies are also strained by the continual discovery of new applications and our national effort to ramp up industries that depend on rare earths, such as clean energy technologies.
Members and witnesses discussed ways to overcome the expected imbalance between available supplies of minerals and the nation’s need for them, including: increasing exploration for domestic sources; finding new overseas suppliers; research to find substitute materials; research to reduce the amount of rare earths needed; and increasing recycling of materials.
For more information, please visit the Committee’s website.