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Breaking China's Monopoly By Engineering New Rare Minerals

Rare earth metals are in everything—from rechargeable batteries to the steel in buildings to jet engines. But right now, they come only from China. So major corporations and the government are re-engineering more common minerals to get the same performance.

Most of the world’s supply of rare minerals are controlled by one country: China. When that supply is interrupted and prices spike, as they did when China allegedly slowed deliveries after political sniping with Japan last year, the world’s makers of televisions, cell phones, computer chips, and other essentials in the global economy go begging or pay exorbitant prices. Those prices are then passed on to you, the consumer.

There is no easy answer. Although the U.S. was once self-reliant, with its own supply of rare earth elements, it is now 100% dependent (PDF) on low-cost imports from China, according to the Congressional Research Service. Any new mines in the U.S. will require more than a decade to come online. As demand rises, companies are turning to nano-engineered materials to escape China’s stranglehold. Several alternatives are being considered: reduce waste, recycle existing supplies, find substitutes, or change the system entirely.  

Companies such as General Electric, motivated by supply concerns and R&D dollars from the Department of Energy, say they are pursuing all of those tactics. Johanna Wellington, an advanced technologies researcher at GE, is developing nano-engineered alternatives with abundant—and, if possible, sustainable—mineral elements that can deliver the same breakthrough performance at a lower cost and without the fear of disruption of critical materials.

Wellington says her work engineering materials at the molecular scale often uses principles already common  in nature to trade out super-common compounds for those that only exist in trace quantities in the Earth’s crust.  One of the most common applications are the magnets built into virtually every electric motor.  "We are using nano-engineering to alter the microstructure of permanent magnets so that we can get the same properties but don’t have to use all the materials that are coming out of China and are very expensive," says Wellington. Her DOE-backed research is making magnets for hybrid vehicles and wind turbine generators that contain 80% less rare earth metals than today’s models.

The DOE is even launching what it’s calling the Critical Materials Strategy to ensure materials for permanent magnets, batteries, and photovoltaics are not disrupted. It’s taking similar strategies to diversify its supply chain, substitute, and recycle. Some analysts studying the market say China’s low-cost mining of minerals made extracting them everywhere else too expensive by comparison, and allowed China to solidify its monopoly and export restrictions, favoring domestic industries and driving up prices here.

GE knows that risk. It recognized years ago that it was consuming a large percentage of the world supply of rhenium, a metal used in jet engine metal alloys and catalysts. "It’s not good to use a large percentage of the world supply of anything, whether it’s rare or not," says Wellington. GE launched a successful quest to reduce its dependence on the mineral, buffering the impact of price spikes that hit in 2008.

"It was eye-opening," she says. "It’s part of the reason we have an ongoing sustainable materials program where we pay attention to other materials that might become rare or at risk for price volatility."