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Rare earth metals at the heart of China-US rivalry

Topic covered: Science and technology

Rare earth metals at the heart of China-US rivalry


Context:

Recent measures of America and other countries to reduce import dependency on China for rare earth minerals

Background

What are rare earth minerals?

  • The rare earths minerals (REM) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table in addition to scandium and yttrium that show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides.
  • The REMs have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. While named ‘rare earth’, they are in fact not that rare and are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust.

Strategic importance of REM

  • Its usage range from daily use (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-end technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables).
  • Even futuristic technologies need these REMs (For example high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues).
  • Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, they help in technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; therefore give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability

Heavy dependence on China for REM

  • In 2019, US imported 80% of its rare earth minerals from China
  • European Union (EU) gets 98% of its supply from China
  • Indiahas the world’s fifth-largest reserves of rare earth elements, nearly twice as much as Australia, but it imports most of its rare earth needs in finished form from its geopolitical rival, China

Such high dependence on China might result in creating geopolitical issues for importing countries if China excludes others from accessing these crucial resources.

Some of the actions taken by countries to tackle this situation

  • US senate passed a law recently aimed at improving American competitiveness that includes provisions to improve critical minerals supply chain.
  • US also aims to boost production and processing of rare earths and lithium, another key mineral component while “working with allies to increase sustainable global supply and reduce reliance on competitors”

What India needs to do?

India has granted government corporations such as Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) a monopoly over the primary mineral that contains REEs. However, IREL accounts for only a minuscule fraction of the world’s production: only 2265 tonnes of REOs in 2016-17, providing almost no value to domestic manufacturers and consumers, who continued to import finished REE derivatives from China.

Reforms required:

  • India must open its rare earth sector up to competition and innovation, and attract the large amounts of capital needed to set up facilities to compete with, and supply to, the world.
  • The best move forward might be to create a new Department for Rare Earths (DRE) under the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas, drawing on its exploration, exploitation, refining, and regulation capabilities.
  • This DRE should oversee policy formulation and focus on attracting investment and promoting R&D, with its first move being to allow private sector companies to process beach sand minerals within appropriate environmental safeguards.
  • It should also create an autonomous regulator, the Rare Earths Regulatory Authority of India (RRAI), to resolve disputes between companies in this space and check compliance.

 

InstaCurious

Do you know, protein found in bacteria could extract rare-earth metals more efficiently and with less waste? Read Here

 

Insta links

Prelims links

  1. What is REM?
  2. Countries with highest production of REM
  3. Places where REM is found in India
  4. Advantages of REM

Mains links

What is a rare earth mineral? Why is it necessary for India to strategically develop capabilities to increase its production in India? Suggest what reforms India should undertake to achieve this goal