October 30, 2013

More REEs Please

A GSA Pardee Keynote Symposium on Wednesday concentrates on world politics, the rare Earth locations that hold elements important to modern civilization, and the need to find more in the U.S. These so-called "rare earth elements" (REEs) get their name not because they in themselves are uncommon, but locating them, differentiating them from each other, and separating them from their host ores is, to put it simply, complicated.

REEs are heavier than iron, yet it is their use in light-weight and energy-efficient technologies that make them highly sought after. Session kick-off speaker Dr. Lawrence Meinert of the U.S. Geological Survey says, "Although the discovery of rare earth elements (REE) dates back more than two centuries, their emergence as an essential component of many modern technologies, such as cell phones, flat screen TVs, electric vehicles, energy-efficient lighting, and wind power, is relatively recent."

Now, the difficulty in extracting these REEs has led to their relatively high prices, up to thousands of dollars per kilogram. Meinert says, "The United States once was largely self-sufficient in REE, but now obtains the majority of its REE from foreign sources, mostly from China."

In his talk, "Rare Earth Elements -- History, Policy, and Ore Deposits," Meinert notes that this is part of a larger trend; in 2012 the U.S. was 100% dependent on foreign suppliers for 18 mineral commodities and more than 50% dependent on foreign sources for 41 mineral commodities. "This has led to concern about the possibility of supply disruptions of mineral commodities variously termed critical or strategic."

Meinert explains that ensuring a stable and secure supply of materials has been a societal concern throughout the ages. The U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch have created laws, regulations, institutions, and initiatives to address the challenges of strategic and critical materials, often in response to immediate crises such as the Cold War or specific embargos. While these responses may have been helpful in the short term, he says, "few if any have stood the test of time."

Meinert's talk and the rest of the session, which begins at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, will explain the nature of REEs in detail and the politics and criticality of the supply stream, including how to work with the fact that while southeast China currently supplies much of the world's heavy REEs, this cannot last forever, and the U.S. needs to continue to study and develop its own resources here on its portion of Earth.


On the Net: