Expert Commentary

U.S. Geological Survey: China’s rare-earth industry

2011 report by the U.S. Department of Interior on China’s supply of rare earth minerals and effects on global supply

Rare-earth minerals are essential to the production of high-tech items such as smart phones and laptops, and they are being increasingly utilized for a variety of purposes in the defense and clean energy sectors. These include elements such as lanthanum, used in camera lenses; praseodymium, for lasers and magnets; and promethium, used in atomic batteries.

With some 95% of the production of all rare-earth minerals, China remains the dominant player globally. This decisive natural resources advantage continues to prompt worries in the United States, Japan and the European Union. A 2011 report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Department of the Interior, “China’s Rare-Earth Industry” (PDF), outlines the basic facts and industry trends within China and examines national policies that may guide the future.

The report’s findings include:

  • Though the production of rare-earth minerals takes place in many regions and provinces within China, the Nei Mongol Automonous Region, or Inner Mongolia, accounted for 50-60% of output over the past 10 years. Sichuan Province accounted for 24-30%.
  • China’s lead in the production of rare-earth minerals has accelerated over the past two decades. In 1990, China accounted for only 27% of such minerals. In 2009, world production was 132,000 metric tons; China produced 129,000 of those tons.
  • The Chinese government sets annual quotas, and policy regulating production is tightly controlled: “In 1990, the Chinese Government declared rare earths to be a protected and strategic mineral. As a consequence, foreign investors are prohibited from mining rare earths and are restricted from participating in rare-earth smelting and separation projects except in joint ventures with Chinese firms.”
  • Recent patterns suggest that China will slow the export of such materials to the world: “Owing to the increase in domestic demand, the Government has gradually reduced the export quota during the past several years.” In 2006, China allowed 47 domestic rare-earth producers and traders and 12 Sino-foreign rare-earth producers to export. Controls have since tightened annually; by 2011, only 22 domestic rare-earth producers and traders and 9 Sino-foreign rare-earth producers were authorized.
  • The government’s future policies will likely keep in place strict controls: “According to China’s draft rare-earth development plan, annual rare-earth production may be limited to between 130,000 and 140,000 [metric tons] during the period from 2009 to 2015. The export quota for rare-earth products may be about 35,000 [metric tons] and the Government may allow 20 domestic rare-earth producers and traders to export rare earths.”

Tags: technology, economy, telecommunications

About The Author