Episode 37. The Geopolitics of Rare Earths
Rare earth elements play a vital role in military and consumer technology, being a necessary component for the production of sensors, gyroscopes, tailfins, and thereby mobile phones and F-35s. As it stands today, only China and Australia can produce the raw materials needed for producing rare earths, and China alone has the capacity to refine them. This monopoly on a key element in some of the most important technology in the world puts China in a powerful position. In this episode we dive into this issue and analyse how other nations are responding.
Journalist specialising in the raw materials sector
Author of The Rare Metals War
Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware
Author of Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes
Founder and CEO of EnergyX
At the forefront of next wave energy technology alongside industry heavyweights like Elon Musk
Professor in Environmental Studies and Public Policy at New York University
Author of China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths and The EU, US and China Tackling Climate Change: Policies and Alliances for the Anthropocene
Part 1: The Weak Link in the Supply Chain (02:58)
In our first part with Guillaume Pitron, we look at what rare earth elements are, how rare they actually are, and exactly how important they are for national security and everyday life.
Rare earth deposits can be found all around the world, however their presence is so diluted that extraction is a very difficult and expensive process, which has allowed China's state backed companies to develop a monopoly on the industry. We look at the economic and military implications of this, as well as the potentially usable black market for them that exists in China.
Pitron helps us understand the difficulties in attempts around the world to compete with China, particularly in Australia and the United States. Not only is extraction an unprofitable endeavour, the only refineries in the world are operating in China. We look at what it would take to become mineral independence in the United States, including policy proposals to prop up a theoretical rare earths industry.
Part 2: What's Mine, is Mine (22:41)
Klinger helps us understand the intricacies of what makes extraction difficult on a geological, chemical, and industrial level, and what exactly has elevated the Chinese extraction and refinement processes to a level that makes it difficult to replicate or compete with. We also break down the further difficult in the industry which is China's control over the production of components and technology using rare earth elements, not just the elements themselves.
Decades of investment in technology and industrial development has made China the leader in the industry, allowing them to be dominant regardless of financial support from the government. We look at how a private industry can be supported using the Chinese playbook of investment in tech development, subsidies, and incentives to purchase.
Is nationalisation of industry feasible? Are Cold War style stockpiles of minerals a useful strategy? We look at the difficult balance between a nation's independence and self-reliance and the ideals of global free trade.
Part 3: The Next Wave (40:58)
Teague Egan helps us understand what the consequences of a lack of rare earth elements would be, particularly for next wave energy technology.
We look at the factors and incentives affected by governmental, societal, security, and climate concerns and policy in the development and implementation of new energy technology, particularly energy storage, and the likely timeframes.
We break down the details of Lithium as a product, storage mechanism and large scale alternative to oil. We look at why Australia is one of the primary places opening up new lithium mines despite it being in a more difficult to extract form than elsewhere in the world
Part 4: Still Fighting the Last War (1:01:52)
Sophia Kalantzakos talks us through the history of rare earths, in both China and the United States. We
We break down the environmental concerns in extraction of rare earths, particularly in regard to the radioactive material that can sometimes come along with rare earths.
Almost a decade ago, rare earths came into the public spotlight for really the first time with the 2010 rare earths crisis, when China limited their export, particularly to Japan.
Sophia helps us contextualise the mission to nationalise rare earth production around the world within the wider realisation of the danger of reliance on China, as well as the overall reliance on many other resources that are not available domestically.
The Red Line's Rare Earths Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of Rare Earths
The Rare Metals War: The dark side of clean energy and digital technologies
Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes
Julie Michelle Klinger
The Political Economy of Rare Earth Elements: Rising Powers and Technological Change
Ryan David Kiggins
China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths Sophia Kalantzakos
The EU, US and China Tackling Climate Change: Policies and Alliances for the Anthropocene
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Yonnis Axmed, Jonathon Bell, and Marisa Rafter.