Experts: U.S. cannot mine enough rare earth minerals

The U.S. government must fund new research into alternatives to rare earth minerals if it is to forestall supply shortages, experts say.
Written by David Worthington, Contributor

The U.S. can’t dig its way out of its rare earth minerals shortage. Instead, increased government investments are necessary to foster the development of alternatives, experts groups concluded in a joint study.

The American Physical Society (APS) and Materials Research Society were unanimous in calling for broader research into new materials and increased electronics recycling. The study was released to lawmakers today.

Ask as they may, the U.S. House of Representatives seems unlikely to oblige. The House majority's FY 2011 discretionary budget proposal dramatically reduces government spending for the sciences by 33 percent, the APS reports.

House Republicans have committed to cut US$100 billion in government spending, with the possibility of further cuts to come.

Washington's nascent austerity politics puts the experts at loggerheads with policy makers: the study saw no away around greater government involvement.

The Associated Press quoted Robert Jaffe, co-chair of the joint study group and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying, "We do not recommend economic stockpiling, which we believe is a disincentive to innovation and has backfired in the past."

Jaffe continued, "After all, many of these elements are not even found in significant deposits in the United States so mining independence doesn't even make sense.”

The Obama administration called on Congress take action to diversify sources of supply for the U.S. and its allies. There has been a slight uptick in domestic supply in response. In December, a rare earth mine reopened in California.

Rare earth minerals belong to a family of elements that are used to manufacture many staples of the modern world - ranging from electronics, hybrid cars, solar panels and wind turbines to guided missiles.

China is the world’s leading source of rare earth metals, the rest of the world lags far behind its production capacity. China has used export bans to put the squeeze on Japan and the United States in political disputes.

However, China is also reliant upon on imports for sourcing its solar technology, the study's authors noted.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards