China is dropping heavy hints that it could restrict exports of rare-earth metals to the US as part of the trade war through highly staged photo ops and heavy hints in state media.
If such a ban happened, it could seriously harm the American tech, defense, and manufacturing industries. Eighty percent of US imports of rare-earth metals come from China, according to the US Geological Survey.
Stocks in rare-earth companies have skyrocketed since China first hinted that it might weaponize rare earth in the trade war, when President Xi Jinping made a highly publicized visit to a rare-earth factory.
This has most likely driven up the price of the materials, which could in turn drive up the consumer prices of those goods.
Here’s what rare earths are and the US products that would be affected by a Chinese ban.
Rare earths, clockwise from top center, praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium.
(U.S. Department of Agriculture photo by Peggy Greb)
What are rare-earth metals?
“Rare-earth metals” is a collective term for 17 metals in the periodic table of elements, which appear in low concentrations in the ground.
Rare earths are considered “rare” because it’s hard to find them in sufficient concentrations to exploit economically. They also require a lot of energy to extract and process for further use.
The elements are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium.
They have a variety of physical and chemical properties and are put to different uses. Lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, and samarium are classed as “light rare-earth elements,” while the others are classed as “heavy rare-earth elements.”
They have grown in importance in recent years because of their use in high-tech manufacturing. Here are some everyday products that depend on rare-earth metals.
iPhones, Teslas, and flat-screen TVs
Yttrium, europium, and terbium are used in LED screens, which you can find on most smartphones, tablets, laptops, and flat-screen TVs. Their red-green-blue phosphors help power the display screen, according to a 2014 US Geological Survey fact sheet.
Those elements are also used in iPhone batteries and help make the phone vibrate when you get a text, Business Insider’s Jeremy Berke reported.
Apple said in 2017 that it would “one day” stop using rare earths to make its phones and pivot to recycled materials instead, though that idea has yet to become a reality.
Lanthanum is also used in as many as half of all digital and cellphone camera lenses, the USGS said.
Samsung’s giant flat-screen TV, named “The Wall.”
The electric-vehicle industry also depends on lanthanum alloys to make its rechargeable, batteries, with some makers needing as much as 10 to 15 kilograms, or 22 to 33 pounds, a car, the USGS reported.
Neodymium-based permanent magnets are also used to make electric-vehicle motors, The Verge reported, citing Frances Wall, a professor of applied mineralogy at Britain’s University of Exeter.
Tesla has also relied on rare-earth permanent magnets from the Chinese producer Beijing Zhong Ke San Huan Hi-Tech Co. since 2016, according to The Wall Street Journal. It’s not clear whether Tesla uses other magnet suppliers too.
As global demand for electric vehicles continues to climb, so too will that for rare earths, Ryan Castilloux, the managing director of the rare-earth consultancy Adamas Intelligence, told Business Insider.
Permanent magnets produced from rare earths are also used to make computer hard disks, and CD-ROM and DVD disk drives, the USGS noted. The magnets help stabilize the disk when it spins.
Restricting magnet-related rare earths to the US would hurt “a lot of industries and cause a lot of economic pain,” Castilloux said.
A Tomahawk cruise missile launching from the stern vertical launch system of the USS Shiloh to attack selected air-defense targets south of the 33rd parallel in Iraq on on Sept. 3, 1996, as part of Operation Desert Strike.
(US Department of Defense)
Drones, missiles, and satellites
The Department of Defense uses rare earths for jet-engine coatings, missile-guidance systems, missile-defense systems, satellites, and communications systems, the US Government Accountability Office said in a 2016 report.
The Pentagon’s demand for the minerals makes up 1% of total US demand. “Reliable access to the necessary material, regardless of the overall level of defense demand, is a bedrock requirement for DoD,” the office said.
The Defense Department on May 29, 2019, said it was seeking new federal funds to support US production of rare-earth metals to reduce its reliance on China, according to Reuters.
Commercial defense companies, like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and BAE, also rely on rare earths to make their missile-guidance systems and sensors.
Fighter jets also heavily rely on rare-earth metals. Each F-35 jet requires 920 pounds of material made from rare earths, Air Force Magazine reported, citing the Defense Department.
F-22 tail fins and rudders — which steer the planes — are powered by motors made by permanent magnets derived from rare earths, Air Force Magazine said.
Yttrium and terbium are used to make laser targeting, armored fighting vehicles, Predator drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles, Bloomberg reported, citing the Benchmark Mineral Intelligence managing director Simon Moores.
The government and private companies have since 2010 built up stockpiles of rare earths and components that use them, Reuters reported, citing the former Pentagon supply-chain official Eugene Gholz. It’s not clear how long these stockpiles would last if a shortage hit.
An explosion caused by a Tomahawk missile, made by Raytheon.
(Department of Defense)
Manufacturers of offshore wind turbines rely on magnets made from elements like neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, or terbium, according to the Renewables Consulting Group. Makers include Siemens and MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, the consultancy said.
Using rare-earth magnets makes the wind turbines more reliable, the consultancy said, because such components are more resilient than alternatives made with conventional materials.
Rare-earth metals are to help refine crude oil into gasoline and other end products, according to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance.
Using rare-earth metals as catalysts in the process leads to higher yields and purer end products, RETA said.
They also play a role in the chemistry of catalytic converters, which reduce harmful car emissions by speeding up breakdown of exhaust fumes.
The Global Times, China’s state-run tabloid news outlet, cited a rare-earth analyst named Wu Chenhui who called a Chinese ban on the elements a “smart hit” against the US.
The prospect was raised after the US this month proposed tariffs on 0 billion worth of Chinese goods and blacklisted the telecom giant Huawei from working with US companies.
Many rare-earth experts doubt that China would follow through with a ban, though, because it wouldn’t be in China’s interest for the US and other countries to start looking elsewhere for rare-earth imports.
But “even if it doesn’t go ahead, it’s a wake-up call,” Castilloux of Adamas said of Chinese restrictions. “It’s causing the US and other countries to take a more serious look into their supply chains.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.