Why You May Pay More For Your Smartphone in Coming Years: Principles of Market Demand and Scarcity Impact On Rare Earth Metals

By: Ally Logsdon, Staff Member

Rare earth metals are fundamental ingredients in the technology that supports cell phones, laptops, iPads, wind turbines, televisions, hybrid cars, solar cells,[1] batteries,[2] and other electronics. The term "rare earth metals" refers to the 17 rare-earth chemical elements including Erbium, Lanthanum, Europium, and Neodymium.[3] Many features on electronics would not exist or function without the use of rare earth metals in the product design. For example, the color screen, glass polishing, phone circuitry, speakers, and vibration units all rely on the rare earth metals to serve their purpose.[4]

Although rare earth metals are not as "rare" as their name suggests, the excavating process is quite expensive because the elements are not dispersed in the earth's surface in economically viable quantities.[5] China has historically maintained a monopoly on the rare earth metals market,[6] but as over-excavating depletes the country's mineral reserves, other nations such as Jamaica and Japan are endeavoring to determine whether elements can be extracted from their soil.[7] China currently produces 90% of the world supply of rare earth metals.[8] Many countries neglect their own reserves of the minerals because of the environmental and ecological dangers of the mining process and the resulting toxic by-products.[9] For example, the United States imports 92% of its rare earth metal supply from China.[10] Over the past 13 years, China's monopoly on the market has led to increased prices as the country imposed trade limits and controlled the global supply of the minerals.[11]

Environmental concerns plague the rare earth metals market because of the ecologically dangerous mining process and lax regulations in the field.[12] The process results in the creation of toxic by-products called "tailings" which are dumped into "rare-earth lakes."[13] The lake water then seeps into the ground and makes its way to the Chinese water supplies.[14] Many farmers, residents, and miners in China report dying crops, lost teeth and hair,[15] and higher occurrences of lung and pancreatic cancer.[16] China maintains that the restrictions it placed on trade is due to growing environmental concerns and not economic greed.[17]

As China continues to tighten its grip on its rare earth metals reserve, the rest of the world is looking elsewhere for the resources. On February 4, 2013, Jamaica broke ground on a pilot project to determine whether extraction of the minerals from red mud is a viable alternative to reliance of Chinese exports.[18] While Jamaica and other countries are tapping into their own resources, some suggest an out-of-this-world location to consider exploring for rare earth metals: the Moon.[19] NASA has already determined that concentrations of rare earth minerals exist on the moon and has begun developing proposals for future excavation pending Congressional support.[20]

Consumers and investors should keep a watchful eye on the success of the efforts of Jamaica and other countries to wane the worldwide reliance on China's mineral reserves, as electronic product prices will likely be affected by the rare earth metal market continuously in the future.
[1] Renee Cho, Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough?Columbia.edu (Sept. 19, 2012), http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/.
[2] Rare Earth MetalsFSA.gov (Nov. 26, 2011), http://www.fsa.gov.uk/consumerinformation/scamsandswindles/investment_scams/rare-earth-metals.
[3] Maggie Koerth-Baker, Four Rare Earth Elements That Will Only Get More ImportantPopularMechanics.com, http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/engineering/news/important-rare-earth-elements#slide-1 (last visited Feb. 6, 2013).
[4] Jay Greene, Digging for Rare Earths: The Mines Where iPhones are BornCNET.com (Sept. 26, 2012), http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=digging-for-rare-earths-the-mines-w-2012-09.
[5] Elliot Brennan, The Next Oil?: Rare Earth MetalsTheDiplomat.com (Jan.10, 2013), http://thediplomat.com/2013/01/10/the-new-prize-china-and-indias-rare-earth-scramble/.
[6] Brad Plumer, China's Grip On The World's Rare Earth Market May Be SlippingWashingtonPost.com (Oct. 19, 2012), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/10/19/chinas-chokehold-over-rare-earth-metals-is-slipping/.
[7] David McFadden, Jamaica Breaks Ground On Pilot Project To Possibly Extract Rare Earth Elements from Red MudFoxNews.com (Feb. 4, 2013), http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/02/04/jamaica-breaks-ground-on-pilot-project-to-possibly-extract-rare-earth-elements/.
[8] Greene, supra note 4.
[9] Russell McLendon, What Are Rare Earth Metals?, MNN.com (June 22, 2011), http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-are-rare-earth-metals.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Greene, supra note 4.
[13] McLendon, supra note 9.
[14] Greene, supra note 4.
[15] McLendon, supra note 9.
[16] Greene, supra note 4.
[17] McLendon, supra note 9.
[18] McFadden, supra note 7. 
[19] Leonard David, Is Mining Rare Minerals On The Moon Vital to National Security?NASA.gov, http://lunarscience.nasa.gov/articles/is-mining-rare-minerals-on-the-moon-vital-to-national-security/ (last visited Feb. 6, 2013).
[20] Id.