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Rare earths are contested ground between US and China
London (AFP) Aug 25, 2019

Vital for smartphone screens, electric vehicle batteries and wind turbines alike, rare earths are highly sought after.

These metals and elements have become indispensable for many advanced industries, but why are they so important?

And what is their geopolitical role when China and the United States are at loggerheads on trade?

- What are rare earths? -

Rare earth elements (REEs) are 17 metals that are actually not that hard to find, with some as abundant in the planet's crust as lead or copper.

Their "rarity" is a result of it being hard to find deposits that are commercially viable. The metals are only found in small quantities within various ores and are often hard to extract.

The United States Geological Survey regularly searches for deposits that can be exploited commercially without damaging the environment.

"Most of the REEs are hosted by minerals that have complex chemical formulas; this presents more challenges to process and extract the REEs," says the USGS.

- What are they used for? -

Rare earths have a particular atomic structure that gives them unique physical properties.

Europium, for example, has a red luminescence used in television screens. Neodymium, which is naturally magnetic, is used to make powerful mini-magnets.

Lanthanum is used in rechargeable batteries found in many electric and hybrid cars.

According to a report published by the British Geological Survey, "REEs are used in the widest range of consumer products of any group of elements".

"REEs play a vital role in environmental protection, improving energy efficiency and enabling digital technology," it added.

- Where are they found? -

According to the USGS, China has the world's largest rare earth deposits, with 44 million tonnes of reserves.

Vietnam and Brazil have 22 million tonnes each.

China has two advantages. Its ores are buried in clay deposits -- unusual but favourable, as it makes them easier to extract, says the USGS.

Chinese environmental standards are also less strict than in the United States, the institute says.

In contrast, difficulties with US deposits twice forced the closure of the only US mine, in Mountain Pass, California.

"Production at Mountain Pass has resumed in the first quarter of 2018," noted commodity specialists Cyclope in a report, before adding that "a large part was destined for export to China."

"There's no refining capacity in the world outside of China," James Litinsky, co-chairman of the Mountain Pass mine, told US business news TV channel CNBC, though he believes the facility will be self-sufficient from China and able to produce its own separated rare earth products from 2020.

- Why are they strategically important? -

The lack of processing sites outside China, plus its production capacity, makes Beijing the main player in the rare earths market.

China's pre-eminence in the supply chain of these metals is a nightmare for the US, as its high-tech companies, both civilian and military, rely heavily on rare earths.

The situation is further strained by the trade conflict between Washington and Beijing.

The issue hardened at the end of May, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited a rare earth factory, dangling the threat of cutting exports to the United States as a counter-strike in the trade war.

China has used the tactic in the past, as in 2010 when Beijing abruptly halted rare earth exports to Japan in retaliation for a territorial dispute.

S.Africa rare earths mine hopes for boost from US-China feud
Steenkampskraal, South Africa (AFP) Aug 25, 2019 - It's old, doesn't look like much and is located well out the way in an arid part of western South Africa.

But the Steenkampskraal Mine may be about to become piping hot mining property thanks to some of the world's highest-grade deposits of rare earth metals.

"Steenkampskraal will become a very important source of rare earths for the global industry," Trevor Blench, chairman of Steenkampskraal Holdings Limited, said during a recent tour.

The mine, located about 350 kilometres (220 miles) north of Cape Town, used to produce thorium, a component of nuclear fuel, in the 1950s and 60s.

But now it's been found to also have monazite ore which contains extremely high grade rare earth minerals including neodymium and praseodymium -- elements vital to cutting-edge industries.

Manufacturing uses range from tinted welding goggles to industrial magnets, strong alloys for aircraft engines, military hardware, hybrid cars, consumer electronic devices, medical equipment and even the flints in cigarette lighters.

- Nothing like it -

China produces the largest share of so-called "tech minerals", with a domestic output of 120,000 tonnes in 2018.

That's vastly more than the United States, which relies on China for about 80 percent of its rare-earth imports.

But now Beijing has threatened to cut off the supply as trade frictions mount, prompting US President Donald Trump on July 22 to give the Pentagon an executive order to find other sources of the crucial elements.

Rare earth elements are a group of 17 minerals unique for their magnetic, catalytic and electrochemical properties.

For the first time since 1985, China last year became a net importer of some rare earths for its industrial needs, while the government cracked down on illegal exploration and production.

Global sales of electric cars, which need the minerals, jumped by 68 percent in 2018 to 5.12 million, with China selling over a million vehicles, according to the International Energy Agency.

"China may, as a result of its own requirements, just export less and less to the rest of the world," Blench said.

Steenkampskraal Mine could just be the answer to growing demand, he suggested.

- 'Abundance of rocks' -

"About 14 percent of this rock is rare earths. That is an extraordinarily high grade and we don't know anything like it on the planet," Blench said, holding a small but heavy reddish brown rock.

Worldwide, many mines have around six percent or less rare earths in their ore.

No mines for rare earth elements currently operate in South Africa, but the government confirms the presence of yet-to-be tapped tech minerals.

"South Africa is certainly on par with any other country that would lay a claim to being able to supply rare earths elements to meet this increasing demand," said mineralogist Deshenthree Chetty at Mintek, a government mineral and metallurgy research department.

She added that it would be "a great deal for our country to be able to supply, and we are in a position to do so, as long as those markets are favourable."

"We have an abundance of rocks in which rare earth elements are found," Mosa Mabuza, CEO of the Council for GeoScience, which surveys mineral deposits, told AFP.

Steenkampskraal has secured all the licences required to start mining. It plans an initial production of 2,700 tonnes a year once funding of $50 million (45 million euros) has been secured, with further plans to expand.

- Expect competition -

But the road to global success risks being rocky for the South Africans, cautioned Diego Oliva-Velez, a commodities analyst with Fitch Solutions in London.

The rare earth sector in South Africa is largely undeveloped, and could easily fall behind the US, Australia, India, Russia and Vietnam which all have "significantly larger proven reserves of rare earths", he said.

Steenkampskraal's reserves are also mostly so-called "light rare earths", which are comparatively abundant.

"Steenkampskraal will have to compete with many other producers in this area globally," said Oliva-Velez.

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