Trump’s quest to quit China’s rare earths hits Australia

(Image courtesy of Northern Minerals)

The remote Outback region of northern Australia would seem an unlikely outpost in the simmering global trade war, but the mining hot spot may help solve a critical issue for the U.S. — the supply of rare earths.

Last October, two U.S. Geological Survey scientists visited a newly recognized type of rare earths deposit about 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Halls Creek in Western Australia. Rare earths, a group of 17 vital elements needed in components for missile systems, consumer electronics and electric vehicles, have become a more important battleground after China signaled it may restrict shipments to the U.S.

“All of a sudden, you’ve got the U.S. government realizing they have a problem,” said George Bauk, chief executive officer of Northern Minerals Ltd., who has held talks in Washington and hosted the U.S. scientists at the company’s remote Browns Range project. “The reason why you are seeing the pressure in the rare earths space is because of the military applications — you are talking about security.”

The scientists, both experts in rare earth elements, spent a few days at Northern Minerals’ camp at Browns Range last October, the department said in a statement. The experts “were there to study and learn about the geology, mineralogy, and chemistry of the deposits.”

“The reason why you are seeing the pressure in the rare earths space is because of the military applications — you are talking about security”

George Bauk, chief executive officer, Northern Minerals Ltd.

While the work is relevant to President Donald Trump’s 2017 executive order on critical minerals — when he asked officials to look into U.S. access to materials including rare earths — the visit wasn’t a specific result of that action, the department said.

More recently, Trump last month ordered the Defense Department to spur the production of a slew of rare-earth magnets used in consumer electronics, military hardware and medical research, amid concerns China will restrict exports of the products.

Lynas Corp., the largest supplier of rare earths outside China, has held discussions with the U.S. defense department and the Defense Logistics Agency, CEO Amanda Lacaze said in an interview at an mining industry forum in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. The company is seeking to boost output and considering plans to add a facility in Texas, she said.

“Certainly, rare earths is a significant lever, and there is risk in the supply chains,” Lacaze said. “You cannot afford to be exposed right through the value chain.”

Developing the Texas plant with partner Blue Line Corp. would install the only rare earths separation plant in the U.S. and help meet rising demand for dysprosium and terbium materials that are needed for high-performance magnets, according to Lynas filings.

It’ll also help spur others to build out supply chains in the U.S. and meet the nation’s ambitions to become more self-reliant, Lacaze said. “Part of us making the move to a facility in the U.S. is that we believe by having that, we will start to grow more of the downstream activities,” she said. “Us being there is a really great start.”

(By David Stringer)

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