Rising Tensions Over China's Monopoly on Rare Earths?

China's dominance of the global rare earths market continues to impact on the economic and strategic calculations of a host of Western consumers

Metals Sector

The metals sector includes both precious and industrial metals although precious metals also have many uses in industry.

The noble metals, which are resistant to corrosion and oxidation, are gold, platinum, silver, osmium, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, and iridium. Because gold is virtually indestructible and substantial amounts of it are already stored above ground, its demand and supply characteristics are different from those of industrial metals. Iron is in a category of its own because it is the most widely produced and traded metal and is used primarily in the form of steel.

Base metals, which include copper, lead, tin, and mercury, are significant for their wide uses throughout the economy. Light metals include aluminum, titanium, and magnesium, and are used alone or as alloys. Alloying metals, which are used with other metals for special purposes, include manganese nickel, chromium, molybdenum, vanadium and others.

There are other metals, some grouped together as minor metals and others known as rare earths, that have recently become more important because of their technological applications.

Rare-Earth Metals

Despite their name, rare-earth elements are relatively plentiful in Earth's crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, more abundant than copper. All isotopes of promethium are radioactive, and it does not occur naturally in the earth's crust, except for a trace amount generated by spontaneous fission of Uranium. They are often found in minerals with thorium, and less commonly uranium.

Because of their geochemical properties, rare-earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated in rare-earth minerals. Consequently, economically exploitable ore deposits are sparse.

Metals are a non-renewable, or exhaustible, resource; hence, the central concept of their supply is a determination of a feasible rate of extraction. Geologic conditions, technology, economic conditions, resource ownership and concentration, and metallurgy are major areas that determine the supply of metals. Demand for metals arises from fabricators, various industrial sectors, durable goods and packaging consumption, and can be affected by cross-substitutability and the different price elasticities of each metal. Because metals are recyclable, scrap has become an important secondary source of some metals.