Visualizing China's Dominance in Rare Earth Metals
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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

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China's rare earth metals exports

China’s Dominance in Rare Earth Metals

Did you know that a single iPhone contains eight different rare earth metals?

From smartphones and electric vehicles to x-rays and guided-missiles, several modern technologies wouldn’t be what they are without rare earth metals. Also known as rare earth elements or simply “rare earths”, this group of 17 elements is critical to a number of wide-ranging industries.

Although deposits of rare earth metals exist all over the world, the majority of both mining and refining occurs in China. The above graphic from CSIS China Power Project tracks China’s exports of rare earth metals in 2019, providing a glimpse of the country’s dominating presence in the global supply chain.

China’s Top Rare Earth Export Destinations

Around 88% of China’s 2019 rare earth exports went to just five countries, which are among the world’s technological and economic powerhouses.

Export DestinationShare of China's Rare Earth ExportsTop Rare Earth Import (tons)
Japan36.0%Cerium
United States33.4%Lanthanum
Netherlands9.6%Lanthanum
South Korea5.4%Lanthanum
Italy3.5%Cerium
Rest of the World12.1%Cerium

Japan and the U.S. are by far the largest importers, collectively accounting for more than two-thirds of China’s rare earth metals exports.

Lanthanum, found in hybrid vehicles and smartphones, was China’s largest rare earth export by volume, followed by cerium. In dollar terms, terbium was the most expensive—generating $57.9 million from just 115 metric tons of exports.

Why China’s Dominance Matters

As the world transitions to a cleaner future, the demand for rare earth metals is expected to nearly double by 2030, and countries are in need of a reliable supply chain.

China’s virtual monopoly in rare earth metals not only gives it a strategic upper hand over heavily dependent countries like the U.S.—which imports 80% of its rare earths from China—but also makes the supply chain anything but reliable.

“China will not rule out using rare earth exports as leverage to deal with the [Trade War] situation.”

—Gao Fengping et al., 2019, in a report funded by the Chinese government via Horizon Advisory.

A case in point comes from 2010 when China reduced its rare earth export quotas by 37%, which in part resulted in skyrocketing rare earth prices worldwide.

average prices of rare earth imports

The resulting supply chain disruption was significant enough to push the EU, the U.S., and Japan to jointly launch a dispute settlement case through the World Trade Organization, which was ruled against China in 2014.

On the brighter side, the increase in prices led to an influx of capital in the rare earth mining industry, financing more than 200 projects outside China. While this exploration boom was short-lived, it was successful in kick-starting production in other parts of the world.

Breaking China’s Rare Earth Monopoly

China’s dominance in rare earths is the result of years of evolving industrial policies since the 1980s, ranging from tax rebates to export restrictions. In order to reduce dependence on China, the U.S. and Japan have made it a priority to diversify their sources of rare earth metals.

For starters, the U.S. has added rare earth metals to its list of critical minerals, and President Donald Trump recently issued an executive order to encourage local production. On the other side of the world, Japan is making efforts to reduce China’s share of its total rare earth imports to less than 50% by 2025.

Increasing rare earth mining outside of China has reduced China’s global share of mining, down from 97.7% in 2010 to 62.9% in 2019. But mining is merely one piece of the puzzle.

Ultimately, the large majority of rare earth refining, 80%, resides in China. Therefore, even rare earths mined overseas are sent to China for final processing. New North American refining facilities are being set up to tackle this, but the challenge lies in managing the environmental impacts of processing rare earths.

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Mining

Mapped: The 10 Largest Gold Mines in the World, by Production

Gold mining companies produced over 3,500 tonnes of gold in 2021. Where in the world are the largest gold mines?

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The 10 Largest Gold Mines in the World, by Production

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

Gold mining is a global business, with hundreds of mining companies digging for the precious metal in dozens of countries.

But where exactly are the largest gold mines in the world?

The above infographic uses data compiled from S&P Global Market Intelligence and company reports to map the top 10 gold-producing mines in 2021.

Editor’s Note: The article uses publicly available global production data from the World Gold Council to calculate the production share of each mine. The percentages slightly differ from those calculated by S&P.

The Top Gold Mines in 2021

The 10 largest gold mines are located across nine different countries in North America, Oceania, Africa, and Asia.

Together, they accounted for around 13 million ounces or 12% of global gold production in 2021.

RankMineLocationProduction (ounces)% of global production
#1Nevada Gold Mines🇺🇸 U.S. 3,311,0002.9%
#2Muruntau🇺🇿 Uzbekistan 2,990,0202.6%
#3Grasberg🇮🇩 Indonesia 1,370,0001.2%
#4Olimpiada🇷🇺 Russia 1,184,0681.0%
#5Pueblo Viejo🇩🇴 Dominican Republic 814,0000.7%
#6Kibali🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo 812,0000.7%
#7Cadia🇦🇺 Australia 764,8950.7%
#8Lihir🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea 737,0820.6%
#9Canadian Malartic🇨🇦 Canada 714,7840.6%
#10Boddington🇦🇺 Australia 696,0000.6%
N/ATotalN/A13,393,84911.7%

Share of global gold production is based on 3,561 tonnes (114.5 million troy ounces) of 2021 production as per the World Gold Council.

In 2019, the world’s two largest gold miners—Barrick Gold and Newmont Corporation—announced a historic joint venture combining their operations in Nevada. The resulting joint corporation, Nevada Gold Mines, is now the world’s largest gold mining complex with six mines churning out over 3.3 million ounces annually.

Uzbekistan’s state-owned Muruntau mine, one of the world’s deepest open-pit operations, produced just under 3 million ounces, making it the second-largest gold mine. Muruntau represents over 80% of Uzbekistan’s overall gold production.

Only two other mines—Grasberg and Olimpiada—produced more than 1 million ounces of gold in 2021. Grasberg is not only the third-largest gold mine but also one of the largest copper mines in the world. Olimpiada, owned by Russian gold mining giant Polyus, holds around 26 million ounces of gold reserves.

Polyus was also recently crowned the biggest miner in terms of gold reserves globally, holding over 104 million ounces of proven and probable gold between all deposits.

How Profitable is Gold Mining?

The price of gold is up by around 50% since 2016, and it’s hovering near the all-time high of $2,000/oz.

That’s good news for gold miners, who achieved record-high profit margins in 2020. For every ounce of gold produced in 2020, gold miners pocketed $828 on average, significantly higher than the previous high of $666/oz set in 2011.

With inflation rates hitting decade-highs in several countries, gold mining could be a sector to watch, especially given gold’s status as a traditional inflation hedge.

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The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

This graphic lists all minerals that are deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

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The 50 Minerals Critical to U.S. Security

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

The U.S. aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 as part of its commitment to tackling climate change, but might be lacking the critical minerals needed to achieve its goals.

The American green economy will rely on renewable sources of energy like wind and solar, along with the electrification of transportation. However, local production of the raw materials necessary to produce these technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles, is lacking. Understandably, this has raised concerns in Washington.

In this graphic, based on data from the U.S. Geological Survey, we list all of the minerals that the government has deemed critical to both the economic and national security of the United States.

What are Critical Minerals?

A critical mineral is defined as a non-fuel material considered vital for the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies, whose supply may be at risk. This can be due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy, or other factors.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a list of 35 critical minerals. The new list, released in February 2022, contains 15 more commodities.

Much of the increase in the new list is the result of splitting the rare earth elements and platinum group elements into individual entries rather than including them as “mineral groups.” In addition, the 2022 list of critical minerals adds nickel and zinc to the list while removing helium, potash, rhenium, and strontium.

Mineral Example UsesNet Import Reliance
BerylliumAlloying agent in aerospace, defense industries 11%
AluminumPower lines, construction, electronics 13%
ZirconiumHigh-temparature ceramics production 25%
PalladiumCatalytic converters40%
GermaniumFiber optics, night vision applications50%
LithiumRechargeable batteries 50%
MagnesiumAlloys, electronics 50%
NickelStainless steel, rechargeable batteries 50%
TungstenWear-resistant metals50%
BariteHydrocarbon production75%
ChromiumStainless steel75%
TinCoatings, alloys for steel 75%
CobaltRechargeable batteries, superalloys76%
PlatinumCatalytic converters 79%
AntimonyLead-acid batteries, flame retardants 81%
ZincMetallurgy to produce galvanized steel 83%
TitaniumWhite pigment, metal alloys88%
BismuthMedical, atomic research 94%
TelluriumSolar cells, thermoelectric devices95%
VanadiumAlloying agent for iron and steel96%
ArsenicSemi-conductors, lumber preservatives, pesticides 100%
CeriumCatalytic converters, ceramics, glass, metallurgy100%
CesiumResearch, development100%
DysprosiumData storage devices, lasers100%
ErbiumFiber optics, optical amplifiers, lasers100%
EuropiumPhosphors, nuclear control rods 100%
FluorsparManufacture of aluminum, cement, steel, gasoline100%
GadoliniumMedical imaging, steelmaking100%
GalliumIntegrated circuits, LEDs100%
GraphiteLubricants, batteries100%
HolmiumPermanent magnets, nuclear control rods100%
IndiumLiquid crystal display screens 100%
LanthanumCatalysts, ceramics, glass, polishing compounds100%
LutetiumScintillators for medical imaging, cancer therapies 100%
ManganeseSteelmaking, batteries 100%
NeodymiumRubber catalysts, medical, industrial lasers 100%
NiobiumSteel, superalloys100%
PraseodymiumPermanent magnets, batteries, aerospace alloys100%
RubidiumResearch, development in electronics 100%
SamariumCancer treatment, absorber in nuclear reactors 100%
ScandiumAlloys, ceramics, fuel cells100%
TantalumElectronic components, superalloys100%
TerbiumPermanent magnets, fiber optics, lasers100%
ThuliumMetal alloys, lasers 100%
YtterbiumCatalysts, scintillometers, lasers, metallurgy 100%
YttriumCeramic, catalysts, lasers, metallurgy, phosphors 100%
IridiumCoating of anodes for electrochemical processesNo data available
RhodiumCatalytic converters, electrical componentsNo data available
RutheniumElectrical contacts, chip resistors in computersNo data available
HafniumNuclear control rods, alloysNet exporter

The challenge for the U.S. is that the local production of these raw materials is extremely limited.

For instance, in 2021 there was only one operating nickel mine in the country, the Eagle mine in Michigan. The facility ships its concentrates abroad for refining and is scheduled to close in 2025. Likewise, the country only hosted one lithium mine, the Silver Peak Mine in Nevada.

At the same time, most of the country’s supply of critical minerals depends on countries that have historically competed with America.

China’s Dominance in Minerals

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is the single largest supply source of mineral commodities for the United States.

Cesium, a critical metal used in a wide range of manufacturing, is one example. There are only three pegmatite mines in the world that can produce cesium, and all were controlled by Chinese companies in 2021.

Furthermore, China refines nearly 90% of the world’s rare earths. Despite the name, these elements are abundant on the Earth’s crust and make up the majority of listed critical minerals. They are essential for a variety of products like EVs, advanced ceramics, computers, smartphones, wind turbines, monitors, and fiber optics.

After China, the next largest source of mineral commodities to the United States has been Canada, which provided the United States with 16 different elements in 2021.

The Rising Demand for Critical Minerals

As the world’s clean energy transitions gather pace, demand for critical minerals is expected to grow quickly.

According to the International Energy Association, the rise of low-carbon power generation is projected to triple mineral demand from this sector by 2040.

The shift to a sustainable economy is important, and consequently, securing the critical minerals necessary for it is just as vital.

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