China has a near-monopoly on rare earth elements, also known as rare earth metals, controlling 95% of the production of the product.
But REEs aren’t rare. We have a sizable amount in the US west. The difficulty in extracting and processing usable quantities of the minerals in an economically and environmentally friendly way gives China the edge. They pay their workers little and pay little attention to the environmental impact of their process.
REEs are essential components of high-tech products, such as missiles, mobile phones and hybrid engines in cars.
Additionally, rare metals are valuable because they occur in minerals that contain thorium and uranium, nuclear fuels that could help shift the world from CO2-emitting hydrocarbons.
Many manufacturers, such as Toyota and Philips are doing an end run around China by redesigning their products to decrease the amount of REEs required for operation.
Other companies and countries are buying into REE operations in countries other than China. Last year a Japanese company bought into a Canadian REE corporation
More recently the Nippon Light Metal Co. Ltd., assayed the red mud, or bauxite residue in Jamaica. The company believes it to be a source of high concentrations of REEs that “can be efficiently extracted in Jamaica, where a once flourishing bauxite industry has fallen on hard times.”
The success of the extraction would be a boon to the Jamaican economy as much as to the Japanese manufacturers.
Sources: SmartPlanet, January 9 and January 17, 2013 And others