Most rare earth minerals aren’t rare at all. Things like neodymium and cerium, which are used to make things such as catalytic converters for cars and the guts of smart phones, are as common as copper and nickel, and fairly evenly distributed around the world. But China produces 90% of world’s neodymium, even though it contains just 30% of the world’s supply.
There’s a reason for that.
Few other countries, especially developed countries, would tolerate the toxic chemicals and processes required to mine and process these minerals for use. Essentially, we outsource the nasty part of the business while enjoying the end results, which are the electronics that have become part of our everyday lives.
Outside of Baotau, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia, sits a lake of sludge created, and filled every day, by the toxic sludge runoff from the plants that process rare earth minerals. The town grew from 97,000 in the 1950s to more than two million people today, all because of the mines and processing plants.
If the U.S. wants to break its dependence on Chinese manufacturing, or at least diversify the supply chain, then Americans will have to make decisions about how to handle rare earth mineral mining and processing. As we contemplate a future full of electric vehicles and other gadgets, the issue will become worse, not better.