Since the days of Jimmy Carter’s administration and the oil crisis of the 1970’s, the US tried to achieve energy independence. But successive oil crises, turbulence in oil prices, and a global transition to clean energy have shown that Washington can never achieve real energy independence by relying solely on fossil energy sources.
In a report published on the US website, “Oil Price,” the writer Alex Kimani noted that most Americans believe that the government should “focus on developing alternative energy sources rather than relying mainly on fossil energy sources,” in order to reduce climate change.
As the transition to clean and renewable energy gains momentum, the US faces another dilemma of almost total dependence on China for rare-earth minerals that it uses to build clean-energy systems.
China provides 80% of the US needs for rare-earth metals used in manufacturing solar panels, windmills, electric car batteries, mobile phones, computers, national defense systems, medical equipment, and even in the oil and gas technology industry.
This position puts the US in a dangerous position, especially given the ongoing trade tensions between the two countries. At the height of last year’s trade war, the Chinese president’s visit to the rare-earth miner plant raised doubts about China’s potential to cut off supplies of such vital materials from the US and the potential paralysis of large sectors of industries.
The US is starting to feel China’s stifling grip on industry as Biden prepares to enter the White House, raising the prospect of implementing his ambitious green deal.
Rare metals are known as “chemistry vitamins”, a collection of elements used to manufacture several fittings using limited, efficient quantities. Rare metals (such as Lanthanum, neodymium, Prasodymium, Gadolinium, and Europom) are widely used in the manufacture of smartphones, batteries, lasers, electromagnetic guns, as well as in missile manufacturing, advanced weapons sensors, disguise technology, noise technologies, and other essential sensitive equipment.
China has accounted for more than 90% of the world’s needs for these elements over the last decade, although this ratio has fallen to 71.4% last year.
In 2018, the US Geological Survey identified 35 rare minerals that are important to the country’s economy and national security. America relies heavily on these minerals’ imports, because it produces only a tenth of the world’s supplies, while importing half of what it consumes. This deep dependence reflects the weakness of the US, and may increase China’s future dominance.
The global rare-earth metal industry is expected to double from $8.1 billion in 2018 to $14.4 billion in 2025, while demand for electric vehicles, mobile phones, and chips is on the rise.
In anticipation of this explosive growth, Biden has pledged to build more than 500,000 new electric-car charging stations by 2030, which currently number 26,000.
The writer pointed out that China’s control over these resources does not necessarily mean that it is a “winning card in its hands”, as the “Global Times” claimed. On the contrary, the US is in a strong position to undermine China’s control of the industry and achieve independence in the field of rare-earth minerals.
Biden is well aware of this challenge, and he has therefore pledged to support increased exploration of lithium, copper, nickel, and other rare metals to provide the country with the necessary minerals to make solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles. The United States Government has intensified its efforts to expand the circle of prospecting for rare metals.
It also provides an encouraging framework for investment in the exploitation and development of rare metals by offering tax incentives to companies investing in this field.
The writer confirmed that the United States does not completely lack the essential rare metals. For example, Mount Bear Lodge in Wyoming provides a reserve of 18 million tons of rare-earth minerals, enough to supply the country for years.
If China bans exports of these resources to the US without warning, the country can rely on other countries like Japan did a decade ago, or it can recycle used minerals.
Although the circulation process remains very limited at present, the potential of the United States in this area is promising, as the circulation rate can evolve from 1% to 20% to 40%. This is equivalent to 5% of their needs, or roughly half of annual mine production in the US, according to a paper published in 2014.
According to Simon Guitt, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, the United States can recycle more than 40% of rare-earth elements based on the adoption rates of technologies such as electric vehicles.
But, in the writer’s view, recycling this quantity of rare-earth minerals is no small matter. Recycling various kinds of electronics will not necessarily provide enough rare metals. In many cases, manufacturers do not usually take responsibility for recycling operations, which means that they may be unaware of the nature of the components contained in these materials.
In rare-earth metals, the US needs a European approach, as the EU’s “waste-electric-device routing” requires that electronic-device manufacturers not only recycle or finance these devices, but also require vendors to provide a free e-waste collection service.