A worker shovels cast-off tailings out of a channel sluicing crushed mineral ore containing rare earths to a disposal dam on the edge of the city of Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The sludge has been rejected by large rare earth smelters nearby but workers sell it to smaller operators eager for a slice of China's rare earth metals business.
Parts of a computer are seen at a recycling facility of Re-Tem Corp. in Tokyo.
The internal structure of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius Plug-In Hybrid vehicle, in which rare earth metals are vital to production.
"China's near monopoly over these 17 rare earth minerals and blatant disregard for the rules of international trade place our manufacturers at a crippling disadvantage in securing economic growth in high-tech industries, growing our renewable energy sector, and developing new technologies." -- Representative Don Manzullo, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee.
A worker waters the site of a rare earth metals mine at Nancheng county, Jiangxi province.
A bastnaesite mineral containing rare earth.
In a report on rare earth materials, the Government Accountability Office said rebuilding the U.S. rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years and is dependent on several factors, including securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies and acquiring. Here is shown one of many new buildings at the Mountain Pass, Calif., mine site that could change the rare earth market.
The battle over access to rare earth materials, critical components of all manner of advanced technologies from smartphones and computers to aircraft and cars, raged again this week as the United States, Europe and Japan joined forces to challenge China's restrictions on exports of the metals. The crux of the situation: China controls some 95% of the world's rare earth materials and sets prices and access to the materials willy-nilly and of course has threatened to cut off access to the stuff at the drop of a hat. The U.S. and Australia have begun mining rare earth materials but they are years away from equaling China's production. So the battle rages. Here's a look at the conflict.
A laborer works at the site of a rare earth metals mine at Nancheng county, Jiangxi province, China. The United States, Europe and Japan have joined forces to challenge China's restrictions on exports of rare earth metals, escalating a trade row over access to some of the most important raw materials used in advanced technologies.
A worker at the Jinyuan Company's smelting workshop pours the rare earth metal lanthanum into a mold near the town of Damao, in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
Lab technician Shirley Robinson checks on her fluxer machines, which takes rare earth oxides and converts them to glass discs, during quality assurance testing procedures at the Molycorp Minerals laboratory at the Mountain Pass Mine.
A villager, seen behind a field of dead crops, shovels cast-off tailings of crushed mineral ore that contain rare earth metals in Xinguang village, located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in this October 2010 picture.
A worker at the Jinyuan Company's smelting workshop watches over pots containing the rare earth metal lanthanum before he pours it into a mold near the town of Damao, located in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The near monopoly China has in producing 97% of the world's supply of rare earths has been a nagging issue among industrial users for years.
Background on rare earth minerals with a world map and charts showing rare earth-producing nations and known world reserves.
Mud samples extracted from below the Pacific Ocean surface, where rare earth elements were found, are pictured at a laboratory of Yasuhiro Kato, an associate professor of earth science at the University of Tokyo. Vast deposits of rare earth minerals, crucial in making high-tech electronics products, have been found on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
Didymium oxide, a combination of neodymium and praseodymium, two rare earth elements.
A worker at Molycorp Minerals in Mountain Pass, Calif., transfers the didymium from holding tanks to the finishing room during the production of the rare earth elements at the Mountain Pass Mine.
Rare earth materials are used in many applications for their magnetic and other distinctive properties and include 17 elements with names such as lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, yttrium and scandium. Here, a bastnaesite mineral containing rare earth from the United States is pictured next to cellphones, which use the minerals during manufacturing.
A worker holds a scrap mobile phone at a recycling facility of Re-Tem Corp. in Tokyo.
Stairs lead down into a vast tailings dam that contains heavily polluted water near Xinguang village, located on the outskirts of the city of Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in this October 2010 picture. The massive Baogang corporation, located on the outskirts of Baotou city, churns out rare earth metals on a vast scale, and villagers living near the smelting plants say air and water toxins from the plants and dam were poisoning them, their water, crops and children.
Prices of rare earth metals compared to gold.
"We want our companies building those products right here in America. But to do that, American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials which China supplies," U.S. President Barack Obama said at the White House. "Now, if China would simply let the market work on its own, we'd have no objections. But their policies currently are preventing that from happening. And they go against the very rules that China agreed to follow."
A worker pushes a cart at the under-construction Lynas Corp. rare earth plant in Gebeng, 168 miles east of Kuala Lumpur, in June 2011.
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