Pentagon Moves to Wrest Rare Earths Control From China

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The battle for control of the global rare earths supply chain is heating up, with the U.S. Department of Defense investing in a new processing plant in a bid to challenge China’s chokehold over the critical minerals.

The Pentagon has agreed to fund the entire $120 million cost of a heavy rare earths separation facility to be built in Texas by Australia’s Lynas Rare Earths, advancing a program launched in 2020, the company announced on June 14.

Located on the Gulf Coast, the new facility will give the United States access to domestically produced heavy rare earths that are essential to industries such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and electronics, according to the company, which is the largest processor of rare earths outside of China.

The Texas facility that landed Pentagon funding will process heavy rare earth carbonate mined in Australia, forming a production cycle that bypasses China entirely. Lynas Rare Earths plans to combine the upcoming plant with a proposed light rare earths separation facility that is being co-funded by the company and the Defense Department.

The project was first announced in July 2020 as part of the U.S. government’s strategy—under a 2017 executive order signed by former President Donald Trump—to reduce dependence on foreign imports of critical minerals. The Pentagon is also funding a heavy rare earths processing and separation facility in Mountain Pass, California.

China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Production

Rare earths are a group of 17 elements with unique properties used in virtually every piece of modern technology, from smartphones to jet engines. Although the United States pioneered the industry during World War II, China now controls over half of global rare earths mining and 80 to 90 percent of intermediate processing.

China’s dominance of the industry represents a major risk to the United States, which currently has only one active rare earths mine—the Mountain Pass mine in California—and zero commercial-scale processing capability. America’s dependence on Chinese rare earths processing gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dangerous leverage over the U.S. economy and military.

By Greg Isaacson

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