Minerals Prices, Supply Impacts Innovation

Posted on September 12, 2011 by Minerals Make Life

On Monday, The Wall Street Journal took a first-hand look at what happens when some of the world’s leading innovators are faced with a perfect storm of increased demand and surging prices for rare earth minerals, as well as the threat of supply disruptions.

Rare earths are necessary components of jet engines, smart phones, medical equipment and countless other high-tech products, the Journal reported. China currently produces more than 90 percent of the world’s rare earths, and has recently tightened its grip on the market by decreasing exports of the minerals.

In response, companies are seeking materials to replace rare earths—nickel and molybdenum are being used instead of rhenium in jet turbines, for example—and have instituted worldwide metal recycling programs.

Still, the article notes, there are applications in which there are no known replacements for rare earths—in lighting for laptop and smartphone screens, for example.

Fortunately, the United States is home to an estimated 13 percent of the world’s rare earth resources, as well as an estimated $6.2 trillion worth of key, untapped mineral resources. With policy actions that allow better access to these minerals, American companies will have a more stable supply of the raw materials needed to develop the next generation of innovative technologies. 

“Manufacturers of high-tech products from cellphones to jet engines rely on a steady stream of metals—some of them scarce—to make their goods. But with demand and prices for certain metals skyrocketing and supply interruptions threatening to stall production, some companies are scrambling to cut their usage.

The metals in question range from the truly rare, such as rhenium, to more abundant but hard-to-process elements such as rare-earth metals, a collective name for 17 minerals used in products like iPhones, the Toyota Prius, vacuum cleaners and energy-efficient light bulbs.” – The Wall Street Journal

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