WASHINGTON — The Japanese discovery of a massive trove of critical rare-earth minerals has buoyed Pentagon officials and given new support for Washington’s tough trade negations with China.
Scientists announced that researchers have found a deposit of rare-earth minerals off the coast of Japan that could supply the world for centuries, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.
The report says the cache contains 16 million tons of the valuable metals, critical for things as consumer friendly as electric cars and smart phone batteries to drones, fighter jets, tanks and a range of other military needs.
By definition, rare-earth minerals contain one or more of 17 metallic rare-earth elements. The elements reside at the bottom of the periodic table — but in certain combinations are at the top of demand list worldwide.
In June, the Pentagon contacted U.S. mining firms asking them to provide plans to develop U.S. rare-earths mining and processing facilities, according a document first seen by Reuters and confirmed to TMN by Pentagon officials.
Responses were requested by today.
The Pentagon issued the request under authority of the 1950 Defense Production Act, which empowers the Pentagon to take unspecified steps necessary for the national defense. The Pentagon is expected to offer some financial assistance to companies engaging in rare-earth mineral mining and processing, officials told TMN.
Pentagon officials told TMN they are also in the process of lining up processing plants in Australia and Great Britain but “while it is fine to have plants in allies it is better to have some here,” one official told TMN.
The primary goal of the Pentagon, working with other federal agencies, is to develop processing facilities in the United States, as well as improve the actual mining of rare farther minerals, Pentagon officials told TMN.
How soon access can be to the new lode discovered by Japanese scientist will shape any Pentagon actions, officials told TMN. The Pentagon has also held talks with rare earths suppliers in Malawi and Burundi, Reuters reported.
China has between 80 and 90 percent of the known reserves. China is also the leading processor of the ore— there are no working processing facilities in the United States. That means the one U.S entity — located in Mountain Pass, Calif. — that mines rare-earth minerals pays a 25 percent tax when it ships its ore to China for processing.
Geologists believe that are significant deposits of high-grade rare- earth minerals near Bear Lodge in eastern Wyoming. However, entities have been flummoxed in finding ways to extract the estimated 18 million tons of ore.
In May, China threatened to withhold supplies of rare-earth minerals as part of the U.S. China trade war.
In 2018 China produced 120,000 metric tons of rare earth, while the U.S. produced just 15,000 metric tons, up from zero in 2017. According to Zion Market Research, the global rare-earth market will grow in value from $8.1 billion in 2018 to more than $14.4 billion by 2025.