When you think about precious or rare metals, Gold, Silver and Platinum probably come to mind. But what about europium or yttrium? No, these are not magical spells—but in fact rare metals that we use everyday.
There are 17 rare-earth metals such as yttrium, europium, terbium, dysprosium that are used to make our everyday electronics, such as iPods, microwave ovens, and even our cars.
So where do all these rare-earth metals come from? Rare-earth metals, despite their name aren’t “rare”. Many countries such as Vietnam, China, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more have natural rare-earth metal reserves. They are called rare because they are difficult to mine. China has mastered how to do so and currently controls 90 – 95% of the world’s rare-earth metal supply.
How was China able to do this? These rare-earth metals are just that—metals that are found in the earth, as in mud. So in order to be of use they actually have to be separated from the dirt and mud. China not only has large reserves but also the equipment and machinery needed to separate the metals from the mud. On the other hand, countries like Vietnam and Brazil only have reserves, and countries like the United States only have the machinery to process but no reserves. So, China controls the supply and has hiked the price 10 times over!
Sounds a bit unfair right? Japan, who heavily relies on China’s supply of the rare-earth metals for manufacturing electronics and cars certainly thought so. So, they set off to look for the rare-earth metals in their own oceans. It took them awhile, but they found a large supply on their ocean floor—stretching across 965-square-miles containing 16 million tons of rare-earth metals. That’s enough to supply the world for over 400 years!
Realising that it’s not enough to only have natural reserves, Japan is heavily investing in machinery and equipment for the process of separating the rare-earth metals from soil and dirt, which might potentially end China’s monopoly.
Written by Tanika Thacker. Tanika is a writer by day and a foodie by night. She lives in San Francisco and nothing makes her happier than ice-cream on a cold, rainy afternoon. You can follow her meanderings on @tanikathacker and @boozefoodlatitude