- China has boosted its REE output dramatically since 1980 while other countries were forced to cut down
- In 2010, Beijing tried to use its near monopoly for political ends
- Western efforts to diversify supply sources since that time have produced limited results
Rare earth elements, or REEs, are 17 chemically similar elements that were isolated out of rare minerals in the 18th and 19th centuries. It took a long time to discover their practical uses. Today, the unique chemical and physical properties of those metals are behind much of the magic of modern technology. But there is a catch. No material replacement has been found for many REEs, such as neodymium, which enhances the power of magnets at high heat and is crucial for hard-disk drives, wind turbines and the electric motors of hybrid cars.
China has limited natural resources for a country of its size. The exception is rare earths, in which it has a virtual world monopoly. With 55 million tons, China has about half of the global REE reserves, but it accounts for about 90 percent of the global production and exports.