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Rare earths

The materials we didn’t know we needed.

  • What are rare earths?

    Rare earths are metals, a group of 17 elements that are relatively abundant on Earth, but not often found in concentrations high enough to make them economical to mine on their own—they’re often the byproduct of mining something else.

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  • What are rare earths used for?

    Whether it’s a hybrid engine, a wind turbine, or devices like laptops and cellphones, there’s a good chance one of these rare earth materials is used in its creation.

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  • A brief history of rare earths

    1788: The term rare earth is coined when an unusual black rock is unearthed by a miner in Ytterby, Sweden.

    1952: The Mountain Pass rare earths mine opens in California.

    2002: The Mountain Pass mine shuts down, undercut by China’s low prices.

    2015: China consolidates its rare earth industry around six major state-owned giants.

    2018: The Mountain Pass restarts operations.

    2021: The Biden administration outlines steps to strengthen critical supply chains, including rare earths.

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  • Rare earths pop quiz

    Which one of these statements is true?

    A. Every Toyota Prius has 55 pounds of rare earths.
    B. A F-35 fighter jet has 920 pounds of rare earths.
    C. A nuclear submarine has 9,000 pounds of the materials.
    D. All of the above.

    Find out by listening to the Quartz Obsession podcast.

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  • China’s rare earth dominance

    The global rare earth market is dominated by China. The country is home to about two-thirds of the world’s rare metals and materials like antimony (used to make semiconductor devices) and barite (used in everything from paint to golf balls).

    60%: China’s share of global rare earths extraction in 2019

    87%: China’s share of global rare earths processing volume in 2019

    168,000 metric tons (185,000 tons): China’s production quota for rare earths for 2021

    20%: Increase of that quota compared with 2020

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  • Relying less on China

    After China’s temporary rare earths embargo against Japan in 2010, Tokyo realized it had to address its own vulnerability. In the years since, it has worked successfully to diversify its critical mineral supplies, investing in and partnering with rare earth companies around the world, supporting rare earth recycling efforts, and funding research on rare earth substitutes.

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  • The euro uses Europium

    Image copyright: Michel Porro/Getty Images

    Sure, we carry around rare earth materials every day in our cellphones. But euro users also carry around a luminous kind of rare earth called Europium. Europium, which glows red under ultraviolet light, is present in euro banknotes for anti-forgery purposes. Fake notes don’t blush.

    Is it a coincidence that the euro uses Europium? The jury’s out.

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