China Solidifies Dominance in Rare Earth Processing (UPDATED)
America’s relative fall from defense technological leadership mirrors its decline in rare earth capabilities.
This is an appalling story of a long-running U.S. economic and national security failure that has put the nation behind China on many next-generation weapon systems while stifling the economy.
Meanwhile, China’s advances are largely built on its unparalleled commitment to leading the world in rare earth resource production, refining, material science, metallurgy, intellectual property, research and development, and commercial and defense applications. Rare earths are 17 elements on the periodic table that are now critical components in most modern technologies and weapon systems.
The U.S. rare earth supply chain was first compromised in 1980. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency change in regulations — “Part 40: Domestic Licensing of Source Material” — inadvertently ushered in the transfer of all aspects of U.S. rare earth industry to China.
Prior to that, heavy rare earths came from thorium-bearing byproducts of commodities such as iron ore, titanium, zircon or rock phosphate. Companies that mined these minerals could extract the rare earth byproducts and make a little extra profit. Once anything containing thorium was considered a potential source of nuclear fuel and highly regulated, that ended. Due to the costs and liabilities, these mining companies diverted these rare earth resources into their mine tailings as waste and buried them.
This had a profound impact on rare earth production in all NRC/IAEA compliant countries. China is an IAEA observer, but not a signatory to its agreements.
Today, the disparity between China and the United States continues in part because the Pentagon, government agencies, and the finance and mining industries measure the extraction of rare earths at the mining and oxide production level. Hundreds of rare earth mining projects outside of China have been initiated, giving the erroneous impression that Western rare earth dependence on China may be declining. However, most ultimately fail.
Out of more than 400 rare earth startups publicly listed in 2012, less than five reached production. Of those, only two reached significant volumes. Of those two, one is bankrupt and resurrected with Chinese financing and the other lost its operating permit for a short period.
During this time, China has taken significant equity and debt positions in many of these failed or faltering projects and will control them if they begin production.
Also, reporting solely on mined rare earths or purified oxides distorts government policy decisions because these materials have no significant technology or defense application until they are refined into metals. Only China has the capacity to do that. In fact, every non-Chinese rare earth mine ships its concentrates, or high-value oxides, to China for processing into rare earth metals, alloys, magnets and other high-value materials.
Preoccupation with rare earth mining instead of the entire rare earth supply chain undermines national and economic security because all defense and technology applications begin with base rare earth metals or other post-oxide materials, not freshly unearthed ore or oxides. China has a global lock on access to rare earth metals, alloys, magnets and most other post-oxide materials.
Meanwhile, a February 2016 Government Accountability Office report, “Rare Earth Materials: Developing a Comprehensive Approach Could Help DoD Better Manage National Security Risks in the Supply Chain,” estimated it could take the United States 15 years to rebuild a domestic rare earth supply chain.
Few if any U.S. policymakers understand these subtleties. Most would be stunned to learn that China could shut down nearly every automobile, computer, smartphone and aircraft assembly line outside of China if they chose to embargo these materials. The same applies to all rare-earth dependent U.S. and NATO weapon systems. These supply chains can be cut. Western military procurement thus is under Chinese control.
Despite this, government reports and assessments have not made these determinations because they accept statistics on rare earth mining and oxide production as a proxy for metals, alloys, magnets, garnets and other post-oxide rare earth materials. There is no contingency in case of a crisis.
Most of these named materials are not stockpiled by the Defense Logistics Agency. The U.S. government sold off its entire strategic reserve of rare earths between 1994 and 1998. The agency’s strategic reserve now holds only small amounts of rare earth oxides and dysprosium metal. None are in a form that can be directly utilized by our defense industry. The GAO reported that these materials would need to pass through a Chinese supply chain in order to be utilized.
All rare earth metals, alloys and magnets used by U.S. defense contractors and technology firms can be traced back to China: directly or indirectly through Japanese sourcing or via U.S. alloy and magnet fabricators.
According to a July 2014 Defense Department Inspector General report, “Procedures to Ensure Sufficient Rare Earth Elements for the Defense Industrial Base Need Improvement,” the Pentagon is incapable of properly monitoring rare earth inputs at the component and subcontractor level. Worse yet, it was clear from the report that no one in the Pentagon differentiates between rare earth oxides — with no defense applications — and the post-oxides materials needed for the defense systems — and none bother to ask where these materials come from.
Why? Because the Pentagon and others continue to evaluate U.S. national security supply risk on the basis of global rare earth oxide production. Risks to the downstream manufacturing supply chain are simply ignored.
After 10 years of raising the alarm on this issue with members of Congress, the Defense Department and two administrations, too few understand the risks we are facing.
U.S. policymakers believe that technology leadership is the country’s greatest strength, both economically and for national security. But this is no longer true as it relates to rare earths. Therefore, ThREE Consulting commissioned a worldwide rare earth patent filings survey. Patent filings are a reasonable proxy of potential next-generation weapon systems and other technology that could be in China’s pipeline.
The data were derived from an exhaustive international rare earth patent search by country of origin. The search dates were unbounded: from the first filed patent to the last filings of August 2018. The data set includes over 80,000 patents. Search terms were rare earth(s), lanthanide(s), lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, scandium and yttrium.
China’s first international rare earth patent filing was in 1983, and just 14 years later, China surpassed the United States and every other nation in total patents filed as shown in the chart. As of August 2018, China has accumulated 23,000 more rare earth patent filings than the United States.
Here are some other findings: China has filed more rare earth patents than the rest of the world combined every year since 2011. By early 2021, China will have accumulated more rare earth patents than the rest of the world combined. Chinese companies can use patent-trolling and patent-ring-fencing legal strategies to undermine or nullify existing non-Chinese patents. China’s rate of filings is accelerating relative to the rest of the world — increasing 250 percent from 2011 to 2018.
At no time over the last 40 years was China’s rare earth production, or its growing number of rare earth patents, listed as an issue of serious concern by the Pentagon in any of its past manufacturing and industrial base policy reports, reports to Congress on China threats, or acquisition reports.
Finally, a recent report ordered by the White House acknowledged the problem. “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States,” stated that “China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security.”
For the Pentagon and defense contractors the last few decades have been good: ever larger budgets and soaring stock prices. China, however, used this time to set the groundwork to overtake and displace the West. Beijing’s commitment to direct and indirect funding of rare earth research and a forced technology-transfer strategy has paid off.
China’s advances are quickly altering the global balance of power, and its future will be in its hands. For example, directed energy weapons will alter or control military outcomes in the future, according to military experts. However, every single directed-energy weapon also requires heavy rare earths and highly advanced material science capabilities. China controls U.S. access to these materials. All of this plays into China’s current strengths in these fields, suggesting that the nation will eventually lead the world in the development and deployment of direct energy weapons.
This is bad news for Pentagon experts whose central plan for continued U.S. security was based on continued technology leadership. China has boldly crossed this threshold in plain view of the Pentagon’s classic three-monkey observation team. And apparently, there is no backup plan.
Solutions to overcoming China’s stranglehold over the economy and national defense are circulating in the Senate and exist within the administration. It’s past time to stop the rancor inside the Beltway and get back to governing.
James Kennedy is president of ThREE Consulting and works on critical materials, energy and national security policy issues at the federal level. He is the subject of the book “Sellout” by Victoria Bruce.
Correction: a previous version of this story misspelled Victoria Bruce's name in the author's biography.