VIEWS: Is Rare-Earth Metal Dominance the New Oil Crisis?

Dispatch from SSC Intern Barbara Summers

A recent article from US News and World Report written by Kent Garber brings attention to this potential risk. There are 17 rare-earth metals in particular that are crucial for the manufacturing of products such as ipods, blackberries and plasma TVs, and are also key elements in the renewable energy industry (electric car batteries, wind turbines etc.). These metals cannot be replaced by some other source because of their unique atomic make-up and are irreplaceable in the manufacturing process of the above mentioned products.

China has been slowly developing a monopoly of these metals over the years and Kent Garber suggests that the country has been strategically buying out all of the mines in other countries. It is estimated that they hold 97 percent of the rare-earth metal supply. This complete dominance has gone under the radar because these metals are used at the very bottom of the supply chain. A report by an Australian analyst estimates that China’s rare-earth metals could become off limits as soon as 2012. In the best case scenario, the prices for these metals will soar, but in the worst case scenario - the rest of the world will be cut off completely from the supply.

There is a potential for this to play out like our current oil crisis stemming from the oil monopoly in the Middle East. With the stress being placed on a switch to renewable energy sources, the green energy sector is likely to suffer serious consequences unless something is done to change the current rare-earth metal situation. Kent Garber suggests that this could lead to major implications concerned with Obama’s energy goals.

So maybe many of our current renewable energy technologies really aren’t as independent from non-renewable natural resources as it is commonly believed. This gives a lot of food for thought.

To read the entire article from US News and World Report click here.