Issue Brief: Mission Critical- The Vital Role of Rare Earth Elements to 21st Century Economies

High-tech devices such as computers, smartphones, and tablets have become essential pieces of modern life, changing how we live and communicate. Critical minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and lithium, and rare earth elements, such as europium, are crucial parts of many of these devices. This trend has led some energy experts to argue that while fossil fuels powered the global economy of the 19th and 20th centuries, critical minerals will power the 21st century and beyond.

In the United States, approximately 15,000 tons of critical minerals are consumed annually, with the vast majority sourced from other countries, including China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.i China has become a significant player in the sector regarding the extraction and refining of critical minerals. China’s dominance of the critical minerals sector, which some have labeled a monopoly, creates vulnerabilities in the supply chain. In 2020, China produced 140,000 tons of rare earth elements, compared to 38,000 tons from the United States.ii This dependence on China has inspired some countries and corporations to locate new sources of critical minerals or collaborate with other nations. Disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have further highlighted the fragility of global supply chains.

The United States has worked to become more energy independent in recent years. Still, this move has largely ignored the role of critical minerals due to the environmental effects associated with their extraction. This CSG South Issue Brief discusses the history and importance of critical minerals and government actions to support and diversify the critical mineral supply chain.

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