US seeks to regain lost ground against China on rare earths
The DoD announced on 22 February that it has awarded MP Materials a $35 million contract to design and build a US facility to process heavy rare earth elements (HREEs) for defence and commercial applications.
The facility will be the first processing and separation facility of its kind for HREEs in the US, as the DoD seeks to ensure security of supply for essential materials used in defence equipment production.
Rare earths comprise 17 metals that can be processed for use in permanent magnets for motors, catalytic converters, batteries and electronics.
Major US defence programmes such as the F-35 fighter rely in part on a steady supply of HREEs: speaking in July 2020, for example, Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said that each aircraft includes 417kg of these rare earth metals.
Once a leader in HREE extraction and processing, the US has been overtaken by China in recent decades and there is only one rare earths mine in the country, leading to deep concerns in the Pentagon.
In 2018, the Trump administration identified the rare earths minerals sector as a risk area due to dependency on foreign sources, and the US Senate is now considering a bill (the Restoring Essential Energy and Security Holdings Onshore for Rare Earths Act of 2022) that would set up a domestic supply chain and require the DoD to source these minerals domestically.
The bill also blocks defence contractors from using rare earth elements mined in China after 2026.
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