Rare Earth Mineral – Global Quest for Dominance

Let’s imagine a situation where future mobility solutions of all means and forms are largely electric. Electric mobility solutions will require powerful magnets to operationalize electric vehicle. Suddenly world wakes up to reality that certain chemical elements e.g. neodymium and dysprosium which are the source of these magnetic properties, are not freely available for commercial production of Electric Vehicle. What will happen to national mobility in such a scenario?  let’s take another view, can there be a situation where US may have trouble making F-35 fighter jets if China imposes an export ban on Rare Earth Element (REE). What will happen to international security in such a scenario?

 These situations may look hypothetical and distant, but reality is shaping faster than our anticipation and our preparedness to  emerging global challenges. Rare earth scarcity problem is real and here to stay. The supply scarcity may be caused by the fact that the world has long overlooked and ignored the issues for development of alternative technologies, which may act as an effective substitute for the rare earth elements and nations which effectively controls the supply of these rare earth element have recognised the Geo-Strategic importance of supply of these elements to the World.

According to US Geological Survey report, mineral commodities are not only vital for economic growth but also for improving the quality of life, for providing for national defense, and for the overall functioning of modern society. These Minerals are being consumed in larger quantities for supporting diverse range of applications— e.g., for manufacturing cell phone, clean energy equipment’s, mobility component etc. Manufacture of a computer component requires wide variety of critical mineral element. Though these elements may be present in small amounts but each element has an essential function in the performance of the chip.

China produces vital proportion of the world output of rare-earth and formulated regulations to restrict exports of rare earths. There are concerns about the future availability and increased input cost of these elements for  major industrial countries such as Japan, the United States, countries of the European Union.

In 2011, Chinese ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced the strategic policy of creating the reserve for Rare Earth Element (REE). It also defined limit on the quantum of overseas export. As a result of policy, since 2005, the Chinese export of RRE is continually declining. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) issued the regulation for controlling the supply of Rare Earth Mineral. Intent of the regulation is to protect Chinese national interests, industrial security and strategic dominance for China. The draft Regulations cover the entire chain management of rare earths in China and limits export of rare earth minerals. This will adversely impact the Industrial development of Japan, US, Netherland, South Korea and Italy which are the biggest importer of REE from China.

To put an overall context on the criticality of the issue, it is worth mentioning a quote in Global Times, which highlights that policy maker at highest level in China are aware of the fact that RRE can be weaponised in the events related to National Security by denying the export access to unfriendly nations

IREL (India) Limited, under the Administrative control of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is engaged in mining and production of beach sand minerals and rare earth compounds. Some of the minerals produced by IREL find usage in the Nuclear Power Programme of the Govt. of India apart from wide ranging industrial applications. The main minerals separated by IREL from the beach sands at its three Units located at Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha are ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, sillimanite, garnet, zircon and monazite. There is trend for production of EV cars by major car producers around the world. The Government of India is also committed to promote EVs. Further cell phones, laptops, electric motors, defence equipment and wind turbines etc all requires usage of REE and any constraint on the supply of critical mineral, would render it impossible to manufacture. India needs to build its geo strategic reserve for REE for stable future supply for Industrial and Defence usage. It needs to learn from the Japanese experience, where Japan was denied access to rare earth mineral by China in 2010 over fishing trawler dispute. Over the decade, Japan has reduced its dependence on China by developing alternative network of suppliers and technology substitutes. India needs a strong visionary policy for preserving its REE for future usage and also development of alternative material technologies which may be superior than the natural element.

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