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AMERICA'S GLOBAL DEPENDENCY FOR NEARLY EVERYTHING
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Who cares about neodymium?
A typical Prius contains two pounds of neodymium, mostly in magnets that help drive the motor. Where does it come from? Virtually all the world’s neodymium comes from one location: the Bayan Obo Mine in northern China. You can see the mine in Google Earth by searching on "Bayan Obo, Baotou, Inner Mongolia, China"—the mine is north of the city. China’s virtual monopoly—and trust me, they know what they have—on this and other rare-earth elements has some car makers worried, enough so that they’re exploring arrangements with Viet Nam and other nations that have smaller, undeveloped supplies of these critical elements.
The U.S. was once the largest producer of rare-earth elements, mostly from one mine in California’s Mojave Desert. But China’s vast reserves catapulted it into first place in 1992, and pretty much put that mine out of business in the late 1990s. The U.S. has had no primary mine production of rare earths since 2002, and imports, 87% from China, account for all our consumption today. The mine at Mountain Pass is mothballed, but prices and worries about supply are encouraging the owners to explore the idea of re-opening it.