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Color Television Ignites Demand
The demand for rare earth elements saw its first explosion in the mid-1960s, as the first color television sets were entering the market. Europium was the essential material for producing the color images. The Mountain Pass Mine began producing europium from bastnasite, which contained about 0.1% europium. This effort made the Mountain Pass Mine the largest rare earth producer in the world and placed the United States as the leading producer.
China Enters the Market
China began producing large amounts of rare earth oxides in the early 1980s and became the world's leading producer in the early 1990s. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, China steadily strengthened its hold on the world's rare earth oxide market. They were selling rare earths at such low prices that the Mountain Pass Mine and many others throughout the world were unable to compete and stopped operation.
Defense and Consumer Electronics Demand
Meanwhile, world demand was skyrocketing as rare earth metals were designed into a wide variety of defense, aviation, industrial, and consumer electronics products. China capitalized on its dominant position and began restricting exports and allowing rare earth oxide prices to rise to historic levels.
China becomes the Largest Rare Earth Consumer
In addition to being the world's largest producer of rare earth materials, China is also the dominant consumer. They use rare earths mainly in manufacturing electronics products for domestic and export markets. Japan and the United States are the second and third largest consumers of rare earth materials. It is possible that China's reluctance to sell rare earths is a defense of their value-added manufacturing sector.
The Chinese dominance may have peaked in 2010 when they controlled about 95% of the world's rare earth production, and prices for many rare earth oxides had risen over 500% in just a few years. That was an awakening for rare earth consumers and miners throughout the world. Mining companies in the United States, Australia, Canada, and other countries began to reevaluate old rare earth prospects and explore for new ones.
Higher prices also caused manufacturers to do three things:
1) seek ways to reduce the amount of rare earth elements needed to produce each of their products;
2) seek alternative materials to use in place of rare earth elements;
3) develop alternative products that do not require rare earth elements.
This effort has resulted in a decline in the amounts of rare earth materials used in some types of magnets and a shift from rare earth lighting products to light-emitting diode technology. In the United States, the average consumption of rare earths per unit of manufactured product has decreased, but the demand for more products manufactured with rare earth elements has increased. The result has been higher consumption.
Rare Earth Production Outside of China
Chinese companies have been purchasing rare earth resources in other countries. In 2009 China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company bought a majority stake in Lynas Corporation, an Australian company that has one of the highest outputs of rare earth elements outside of China. They also purchased the Baluba Mine in Zambia.
Mines in Australia began producing rare earth oxides in 2011. In 2012 and 2013 they were supplying about 2% to 3% of world production. In 2012 the Mountain Pass Mine came back into production, and the United States produced about 4% of the world's rare earth elements in 2013. Production in Brazil, Malasia, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam continued or increased.
New mineral resource assessments conducted by the United States Geological Survey identified significant resources outside of China. As of 2016, although China was the world leader in rare earth production, they only controlled about 36% of the world's reserves. This provides an opportunity for other countries to become important producers now that China is not selling rare earth materials below the cost of production.
There was much little demand for rare earth elements before 1965. Normally, most of the world's supply was being produced from placer deposits in India and Brazil. In the 1950s, South Africa became the leading producer from rare earth bearing monazite deposits. At that time, the Mountain Pass Mine in California was producing minor amounts of rare earth oxides from a Precambrian carbonatite.