A couple of years ago, struggling to come to grips with the lunacy of the US presidential elections but not wanting to lose focus in the posts, I used a political video to introduce a materials topic. The video was mocking (then candidate) Donald Trump’s incessant talk about China, and I linked that to the topic of rare earth materials and China’s virtual lock on the global supply. The core commentary was on the geopolitical implications of this stranglehold, specifically citing an incident between China and Japan.
Maybe he should have read the post . . . Three years later, Trump’s battle with China has brought the United States to the brink of the same predicament: China is beginning to talk about the possible restriction of exports of rare earth materials to the US.
It’s not as if the current government isn’t aware of the issue: the Department of the Interior issued a report last year documenting 35 minerals that were of critical importance to national security. Both the safety and the economic kind of security.
The list is really longer than 35 materials, as “Rare Earth Elements Group” is one material – though there are 17 elements within the group. Regardless, the US imports at least 50% of 23 of the 35 stated materials – and 100% of the Rare Earth Group. And it gets 100% of that Group from China.
If there is some sort of restriction on the flow of these materials, it will impact industries from electronics to automotive to aerospace. The demand for these materials, and industry’s reliance on them, has led to the funding of research to determine new sources, both foreign and domestic. In the US, researchers in Virginia are looking at the extraction of the minerals from Trump’s other political tool – coal.
The team at West Virginia University found that acid mine drainage, literally acidified water that results from geological disturbances, naturally concentrates rare earths. As coal mines produce significant volumes of this discharge, and are required to treat the waste. They do so in such a way as to produce solids that are rich in rare earth minerals, and serve as good feedstocks for their extraction.
If there is a silver lining to the decidedly black cloud that coal hangs over the environment, this could be it. Preliminary estimates show that the discharge from the Appalachian basin alone could provide the needed materials for the US industry. In addition, raising the value of what was previously seen as a difficult waste material should lead to significantly lower volumes of it being dumped into waterways.