Rare earth elements, vital in the construction of computers, gadgets, and other technical parts, are pretty commonly found around the world; the "rare" part of their name comes from the fact that they're hard to find in dense enough concentrations to be economically viable to extract. In the '80s, California was one of the worlds leading producers of rare earth elements but officials there let production slip in the face of environmental regulation and slipping prices. In 2002, the state's largest rare earth elements mine, Mountain Pass, shut down entirely.
China got into the rare earth elements game in the mid '80s and quickly ramped up production. Today that country controls more than 97 percent of the world's supply.
Higher prices and the recognition that it's probably not a good idea to let China control the markets of such vital raw materials have lead to a sharp jump in the number of rare earth elements mines coming online. The owners of the Mountain Pass mine in California are expected to restart operations this year, and numerous other ventures are popping up in places like Australia, Cananda and Vietnam.
And now Japan wants in on the action. Earlier this year, Japanese officials released a study showing that deep sea mud off the coast of Japan is densely packed with rare earth elements. They estimate that one patch of sea floor 1.5 miles by 1.5 miles wide could hold enough rare earth elements to satisfy the world's supply for a year.
This is good news. Rare earth elements are too important to our society to allow any one country to control them.
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