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COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights U.S. Reliance On China's Rare Earth Metals


Attorney General William Barr delivered a speech on China this week lashing out at American universities and companies for being too cozy with Beijing. He also complained that the United States has become too dependent on China for minerals that are critical to national security. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: If you look at a periodic table, there's a line of 15 elements towards the bottom of the chart with some pretty unpronounceable names. Among them, lanthanum, praseodymium, praseodymium. These make up the bulk of what's known as rare earth elements.

JIM KENNEDY: They have such unique chemical and physical properties. Nothing on the periodic table can touch what these elements can do. They're like magic.

NORTHAM: Jim Kennedy is the founder of ThREE Consulting, which specializes in rare earth minerals. He says the rare earths are processed and turned into high-strength magnets that power everything from MRI machines and electric vehicles to highly sophisticated weaponry.

KENNEDY: This is one of the smallest commodity markets in the world. But the rare earths that are produced, this tiny little fraction of material, becomes critical to $7 trillion - finished goods, you know, automobiles, aircrafts, your phone, my phone, every computer in the world.

NORTHAM: The U.S. used to be the world leader in rare earth production. But Ryan Castilloux with Adamas Intelligence, an independent research firm specializing in strategic materials, says now China produces about 90%.

RYAN CASTILLOUX: Starting in somewhere around the 1980s, it began to flood the global markets with low-priced rare earth elements that the existing producers at the time, primarily in the U.S., could not compete with.

NORTHAM: He says, at the moment, the only rare earth mine operating in the U.S. is Mountain Pass in Southern California. But China has a stake in that mine as well.

CASTILLOUX: It exports all of that material to China for conversion into metals, conversion into alloys, conversion into magnets, which are then sold back to the US defense infrastructure and back to U.S. companies.

NORTHAM: The Trump administration sees the U.S.'s heavy dependence on China for rare earth elements as a national security concern. Last year, Trump issued a presidential directive to strengthen the rare earth industry and create its own supply chain here in the U.S. Castilloux says the effort has faltered.

CASTILLOUX: I think the initial solution that was proposed was just, hey, we have rare earths in the U.S. So let's just find ways that we can expedite development of new mines. However, the problem is much more multifaceted than that.

NORTHAM: Pulling rare earth elements from the ground is one thing. But creating a whole supply chain - from processing to being used for advanced technology - is another. There isn't the infrastructure or the funding. Until then, the U.S. has to rely on China, which could leave it in a vulnerable position if relations between the two countries deteriorates further. In 2010, China withheld rare earth supplies from Japan. Robert Dohner was a senior official at the Treasury Department at the time. Now with the Atlantic Council, Dohner says Japan found alternatives. He says the U.S. can do the same.

ROBERT DOHNER: You have stockpiles. You've got the ability to economize on the use of rare earth minerals. And you also have the ability to recycle the rare earths from things that have already been produced.

NORTHAM: A short-term solution for a problem the U.S. will need to solve if it wants to break its reliance on China and create its own supply chain for rare earth elements.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.


Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.