Molycorp's rare earth minerals mine, Mountain Pass, California. (graphic: Google Maps)

Rare earth minerals are critically important to current technologies, including many different electronic components. Unfortunately, these minerals don’t exist in large quantities in many places; they are concentrated in small pockets around the world, and in China in particular.

China currently has a lock on the market for rare earth materials: in 2009 it provided 95 percent of the world’s supply, or 120,000 tons. This concentration of supply has become a major issue in recent months, particularly after China temporarily blocked exports of these materials to Japan in September. A Critical Materials Strategy document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy last week points to the “risk of supply disruption” in the short term. Worldwide demand for rare earth elements was 125,000 tons in 2010 and is expected to rise to 225,000 tons by 2015.

The problem with dependence on rare earth minerals is two-fold; not only does the limited supply create easily manipulated pinch-points prone to political pressure, but the demand for these minerals puts supplies anywhere else at a premium. This means fragile ecosystems may be sacrificed for rare earth mineral mining in the name of national security since military technology also relies on these minerals.

We’re very much in need of a national policy to develop alternatives to rare earth minerals or we are going to make ugly, risky choices — sacrificing irreparable ecosystems here in the U.S. or increase exposure to political vagaries of limited supplies in other countries. It’s the problem of petroleum all over again, with new players — or it’s an opportunity to invest in our own ingenuity and find new solutions through public policy focused on development of alternatives here at home.

What do you think about the rare minerals situation? And what’s on your mind tonight?