Rare Earths: Africa, the new Eldorado?

To no longer depend exclusively on Chinese supplies, the American authorities have announced that they want to strengthen their African supplies of rare earths.

As tensions continue to rise between the Chinese and American giants, the Middle Kingdom could be led to use one of its main strategic weapons: to stop its deliveries of rare earths, minerals exploited almost exclusively in China – 90% of world production – and used in particular in the manufacture of mobile phones, solar panels, electric batteries, weapons, etc.
Aware of this threat, the US Department of Defense recommended on Tuesday 4 June to find new sources of supply as soon as possible. And in this race for rare earths that are not « Chinese », Africa appears to be a potentially strategic area. Following the Pentagon’s announcement, US officials confirmed to Reuters that several companies active on the continent had been contacted, in particular Rainbow Rare Earths in Burundi – which has been exporting rare earths since late 2017 – and Mkango Resources in Malawi, which has not yet started extracting rare earths, but plans a refinery associated with the mine. Quoted by our colleague, Jason Nie, materials engineer at the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), insisted that « we[the United States] are looking for any source of supply outside China. We want diversity. We don’t want a single-source producer. However, the DLA employee reminds us that if his organisation regularly discusses with potential suppliers as part of its due diligence, « this does not necessarily lead to purchase contracts ». Moreover, even with real political will, the transition to a supply independent of the Chinese supplier would take time, as new extraction projects would take several years to emerge. According to a U.S. government report, for the current 2019 fiscal year, DLA plans to purchase up to 416 tonnes of rare earths on the open market. In the United States itself, there is only one active rare earth mine, Mountain Pass, in California.

World Rare Earth Reserves in 2018 (in thousands of tonnes)
Computer graphics: Statista