A topic most people once considered as boring as dirt—rare earth minerals—has fast become a matter of international significance with a direct impact on green technologies and consumer electronics.
Rare earth metals are a group of elements that are used in a wide range of everyday products, including hard drives and hybrid cars. Their properties, notably as light-weight magnets, make them key to the ongoing miniaturization of electronics and the growth of green technologies.
China recognized the importance of these elements decades ago and now supplies almost all the rare earth materials in the world. But supply has become a problem. China sharply reduced its export quotas last year and this year in order to conserve its own resources. That move helped cause a spike in prices and angst around the world.