As discussed in my last post about rare earth element components in hybrids and electric vehicles, the Obama administration filed a challenge with the WTO against China’s restrictions on export of rare earth elements. Why should you care about rare earth elements? A Prius battery contains 20-30 lbs of lanthanum. Other components like the motor and electronics systems also use these. This is only one reason why companies are switching from NiMH to Lithium ion batteries.
Why did China restrict exports? Long story short, to move their domestic production from raw materials to finished products like electronics and automobiles! While their explanation is that they are motivated by environmental concerns, this is only half true. Their laws are already looser than the United States and there appears to be many illegal mines in China which violate existing regulations.
This has been on the US’s radar for a while. After some disputes between China and Japan, they block imports to Japan, maker of the Pris and many other electronics. The US Department of Energy has started to give millions for research to reduce or eliminate rare earth elements. While supplemented by private capital investments, the amount of money invested in what could become a national security issue is tiny compared to federal expenditures.
Before rare earth elements become an area of conflict, raw science research funding needs to be restored. Here’s a list of some recent projects funded by the DOE