First, a definition: "rare earth" materials are in chemistry, oxides of the rare-earth metals. They were once thought to be elements themselves. They are widely distributed in the earth's crust and are fairly abundant, although they were once thought to be very scarce. Generally, the name of an earth is formed from the name of its element by replacing -um with -a; e.g., the earth of cerium is ceria. Mixed rare earths are used in glassmaking, ceramic glazes, glass-polishing abrasives, carbon arc-light electrode cores, and catalysts for petroleum refining. Individual purified rare earths have many uses, e.g., in laser, fiber-optic transmission amplifiers, and night-vision goggles. Important rare-earth minerals include bastnasite, cerite, euxenite, gadolinite, monazite, and samarskite.
There are 17 of them, too, by the way.
Okay, that said, there's two more things you need to know about these "rare earths", as they are called.
First, they're needed for new technology products: The 17 rare earth elements are used in high-tech electronics, magnets and batteries, with applications in hybrid cars, renewable energy, computer monitors and weapons.
The second--and maybe most important thing you need to know about these rare earths is that China controls 97 percent of global supplies of the elements and, oh yeah, they use quotas and taxes to limit exports.
Can you say "Got the world by the cajone's?"
China slashed the export quota by 40 percent this year and plans to trim it further next year. It has already announced increased export taxes on rare earths in 2011.
China's export restrictions have caused "world prices for some of the rare earths to rise dramatically higher than China's domestic prices," which has hindered efforts in other countries to develop expertise in the manufacturing of clean technology products, said.
"In September 2010, China reportedly imposed a de facto ban on all exports of rare earths to Japan, causing even more concern among China's trading partners," USTR said.
China says its curbs are for environmental reasons and to manage supplies.
Outside of an out-and-out, old-fashioned war, can you imagine a better way to both bring the rest of the world to its knees or to control where technology is going than by owning and controlling---and limiting the distribution of--these rare earths?Hang on to your hats, folks, the next century looks like it's gonna' be a bumpy ride.
Even if you ignore the fact that Republicans are taking over the House of Representatives next January.