Setting off speculation that China is manipulating exports to punish certain trade partners, Beijing announced in July it was slashing its six-month export quota of so-called 'rare earths' by 72 percent. Speculation continued this week with reports of an expanding embargo of the minerals.
But the so-called "rare earths" are neither rare nor does China have a lock on them. Although China produces 97 percent of the world's rare earths, it contains only 30 percent of the world's supply. The United States, Russia, and Australia all have significant reserves of the 17 elements essential in semiconducters, lasers, and other high-tech gadgets.
While mining them has proved uneconomical at usual world prices and environmentally harmful, that may be changing. Click through the following slides to read how rare earths are important to your daily life.
Drive a hybrid car? Then you're using lanthanum (No. 57 on the periodic table).
Reuters reported last year that a single Toyota Prius electric motor requires 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of neodymium, and each battery uses 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of lanthanum. "The Prius hybrid automobile is popular for its fuel efficiency, but its electric motor and battery guzzle rare earth metals, a little-known class of elements found in a wide range of gadgets and consumer goods," according to the British news agency.
Lanthanum is also essential in some superconductors, as the Monitor reported in 2008.
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