The Rare Earth Situation: What Can Be Done?
So what can be done? Often, the first question asked about this issue is, “What substitutes exist for rare earths?” Unfortunately, the answer is usually that none exist or substitutes do not perform nearly as well.
- Many companies do not have a complete understanding about how rare earths may be used by their suppliers, either in parts or processes used to make the parts, or how their products are further used by customers in products that rely on rare earth materials. Thus, a major disruption in rare earth supplies could have unanticipated and devastating effects on the entire product supply chain. Companies would be well-advised to examine their products and processes closely to understand to what extent rare earth materials play a role. Then discussions with suppliers and customers may provide valuable insights as to what risk all parties face if rare earth supplies are restricted or if prices escalate suddenly.
- Consider product or process re-designs to eliminate or reduce the use of rare earth materials. Development programs should be considered to reduce exposure to risk of rare earth shortages or unacceptable price increases. These efforts may require far-sighted combinations of new materials and designs, alternative manufacturing methods, and new joining technologies among other factors.
- In the face of shortages and skyrocketing prices, new efforts must be developed and implemented to recover and recycle critical rare earth resources.
- Further work is needed to develop highly efficient recovery methods from rare earth ores and handling of waste streams by environmentally acceptable methods.
- During the anticipated scramble for rare earth resources, it will become increasingly important for the United States to have a well-coordinated national policy and response to potential shortages. This response should merge the interests of industrialized nations and those with rare earth resources that can be developed, including those in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Within the United States, more recognition must be given to the strategic national importance of rare earth materials and other critical metals that impact vital national interests and the future of clean energy production. A broad national initiative is needed to educate and coordinate the interests and responses of producers, industrial manufacturers, R&D centers, national laboratories and agencies, academia, the military, and the public.
Posted by Rich Tenaglia
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