Nations Move to Head Off Shortages of Rare Earths

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Science  26 Mar 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5973, pp. 1596-1597
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5973.1596

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In recent decades, rare earth elements (REEs)—lanthanum (element 57) through lutetium (element 71) along with scandium and yttrium—have become vital to a host of novel electronics and green-energy technologies. But while researchers are steadily inventing new applications for rare earths, the supply isn't keeping up—and users of REEs are feeling the pinch. Today, China supplies more than 97% of all REEs, and increasingly the products from which they are made. But because its domestic demand for the elements has been growing even faster than its production, the country's REE exports have dropped from 75% of the total produced to 25%. For a handful of elements, China is expected to use all it can produce sometime between 2012 and 2014, leaving the rest of the world out in the cold unless manufacturers and mining companies develop more sources soon.