Sophisticated readers are well aware of the media's tendency to twist the news to fit the fashions of the day. Many members of the press earn their daily bread by manipulating the news with sensational headlines sure to grab readers, but unlikely to thoroughly inform the public on an admittedly complex issue. Bloomberg's recent article by Sonja Elmquist, "Rare Earths Fall as Toyota Uses Alternatives," is characteristically misleading.
First of all, this reporter fails to differentiate between the light and the heavy rare earths. They are lumped together in a misleading compote. Truth be told, if you open the hood of a Toyota car or truck, about 50 points use dysprosium as a prominent role and it would be next to impossible to economically and effectively replace the size and weight of the car itself. In an age where fuel efficiency?and thus automotive body weight?is of vital consideration, substitution for heavy rare earths is close to impossible, and would likely result in an automobile more like a 1970 Buick, a car that was popular when gas was $0.50 a gallon and chrome was as thick as rush-hour traffic.
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A bulky, heavy vehicle such as this would fare very poorly in today's efficiency-conscious auto market. Light rare earth elements are commodity driven, and heavy rare earths are largely unique and thus inimitable. The automobile manufacturers depend on heavy rare earths, and the cost of replacement is prohibitive. However, the Japanese must maintain a straight face in this global poker game and fake that they don't need any of the rare earths.
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But Japan's latest bluff is just one round in a tournament that has been unfolding for decades. China recognized the emerging importance of the rare earth sector as early as the 1980s, aware even then that need for rare earths would grow along with devices that would change the face of modern industry. Decades ago, both Steve Jobs and the Chinese were able to foresee taking the computers from a large room and miniaturizing them for everyday utilization within the palm of the hand. These smart devices envisioned by the early pioneers such as Jobs would only have existed in the fertile brains of a handful of scientists in the absence of rare earths, which made compact technology and its mass production possible. What once were huge, block-long computers in the hands of a few corporations are now carried in the pockets and purses of the average individual.
Even today, the role played by rare earths in these iPhones and iPads is only beginning to be understood. Sophisticated readers of my newsletter are well aware of the myriad uses of rare earths, without which new concepts from solar panels to wind turbines to portable nuclear reactors to hybridautos could not have come into being.