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A selected letter in The Guardian talking about electric vehicles claims:

The rare metals in lithium batteries are produced only in inconvenient places. More than 85% of the world’s supply comes from China. How dependent will that make us upon them?

What metals might it be talking about (no details in there) and is it confirmed from other sources? Bonus question: are these rare metals essential for making lithium batteries or just convenient?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Oddthinking Jan 13 '18 at 12:28
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    Please avoid pseudo answers in comments. – Oddthinking Jan 13 '18 at 12:28
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...but China only has 37% of the world's reserves

Michael Karnerfors has provided evidence that China produces 95% of the world's rare earth elements. However, China does not hold that much of the world's reserves of such metals.

The US Geological Survey mineral commodity summary for 2017 for rare earths gives China's 2016 rare earth's production at 105,000 tons of a world total production of 126,000 tons; 83% of the world total.

However, China's known reserves are given as 44,000,000 tons, out of a total of 120,000,000; 37%. Other nations with a large portion of world reserves include Brazil (18%), Vietnam (18%) and Russia (15%).

To answer the question in the title, China does control roughly 85% of the current supply, but they don't control nearly that much of the potential supply. Were China to raise prices, it would simply allow mines in other regions of the world to be economical. This has in fact happened in the past, if I may be allowed to steal a link from matt_black's comment.

So while literally true that China controls the supply of 85%, they cannot leverage this position to any economic advantage. To answer the question in the quote from the OP, we (all the non-Chinese) are not dependent on them.

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    @MichaelKarnerfors The USGS defines reserves as "That part of the reserve base which could be economically extracted or produced at the time of determination." Page 3, here. – kingledion Jan 12 '18 at 15:26
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    @kingledion "That part of the reserve base which could be economically extracted..." Well I could be a millionaire in gold, if I just bought myself a gold rich lot, got all the permits, built a mine, hired workers to extract it, put them to work, found a buyer and kept going long enough to recoup the investment and then long enough to make a profit in the millions. That does not mean I am able to become a millionare in gold now by starting to put gold on the market. So I find that definition kind of glib and not entirely applicable to the current situation. – MichaelK Jan 12 '18 at 15:53
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    @MichaelKarnerfors It is the US Geological Service, the gold standard for information of this sort. Are you telling me that you have a better method of determining mineral reserves than they do? Also, your specific scenario is discussed in my last link. Chinese tried to raise prices and mines in the US and Estonia suddenly became profitably and came back online. If the Chinese raise prices, it will be worth it to dig new mines in Vietnam or Brazil or wherever. – kingledion Jan 12 '18 at 16:05
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    @reirab It works both ways. That's one of the reasons why world trade is essential for prosperity - it allows for efficient allocation of resources. Even if one country controlled all the vibranium on the planet, it would still benefit from freely trading it. Of course, a monopoly of a select few can benefit those select few, which is why trade restrictions hurt everyone but those few. But even if China were to restrict the supply (as noted, this has happened before), it simply makes other mines and processes profitable. It makes everyone poorer, but not utterly dependent. – Luaan Jan 13 '18 at 9:34
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    I'm happy you used my link as your answer is the only one that really addresses the question about dependence on china. – matt_black Jan 13 '18 at 13:25
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China holds 95% of the world production of Rare-earth Elements

When the letter says...

The rare metals [...]. More than 85% of the world’s supply comes from China

...I believe the author means Rare-earth Elements/Rare-earth Metals.

REMs are necessary elements in the production of electronics, computer chips of all kinds, computer/phone displays, solar panels and a whole range of other products of that sort. This means that presently our modern society is entirely dependent on REMs to supply us with not only consumer products but also monitoring and control equipment for critical societal functions such as clean water, heat, sewage, energy production and distribution, food production and distribution, military hardware, and finance and banking.

As the Wikipedia article above states, China does indeed hold the overwhelming majority of the world's production of REMs. In 2010, China suppled 95% of the world's market for REMs.

The final point the letter makes is:

Mining these materials is far from environmentally friendly.

Is this true?

Yes, it seems so: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

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    The thing is I'm not sure any of "the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium" that are considered rare-earth elements (according to IUPAC) are actually needed for Li battery production. Do you have any source saying that? – Fizz Jan 12 '18 at 12:30
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    If REMs are needed for the lithium based battery cells themselves, I cannot tell. However(!)... whatever that battery is supposed to give power to, that will most definitely need REMs, in one way or another. So if we step back and look at what the letter is actually talking about — electric cars — then the wording may be faulty, but the sentiment is true: switching to an electric car over a fossil fueled car is no guarantee for being "clean", because the elctric car will need a higher amount of REMs compared to a fossil fuel car (Neodymium in particular), and there China has a chokehold. – MichaelK Jan 12 '18 at 12:44
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    China doesn't have a "chokehold", just a large proportion of cheap production. See this register article for an explanation of what happened last time they tried to exploit it. – matt_black Jan 12 '18 at 13:36
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    @matt_black I stole your link for my answer. – kingledion Jan 12 '18 at 14:21
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    95% of the Production comes from China... does that mean that 95% of the world supply is actually IN China and only available from China? Or that they are simply the only ones that can afford to mine those at a given price point (IE: Subsidized, without environmental protections, no worker protections, etc)? – WernerCD Jan 12 '18 at 14:50
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Based on an CNBC piece with similar claims, the Guardian letter seems to be talking about cobalt:

For example, China controls 80 percent of the market in chemical cobalt, a crucial ingredient in lithium-ion batteries, [Benchmark Mineral Intelligence analyst Caspar Rawles] he said.

Oddly enough a techcruch piece is somewhat contradictory

Approximately 97 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt comes as a by-product of nickel or copper (mostly out of Africa).

Digging the Benchmark report that all seem to using for this data, it clarifies that the Chinese control is by their acquisition of African mines, in DRC in particular:

In 2015, the last full year of production, 102,000 tonnes of cobalt (all forms) of which 59% was mined from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a by-product of copper production. Outside of the DRC, there are no significant production hubs with the second largest producer, Canada, accounting for 9% of total supply. Other producers include Russia, Cuba, Australia and the Philippines. In total, cobalt is mined in 14 countries.

China Molybdenum has made recent moves to secure long term supply for its domestic battery industry by acquiring Freeport McMoran’s Teneke mine in DRC for $2.65bn and with it 20,000 tonnes of additional cobalt capacity. The move puts China to the number one spot for countries that control the most cobalt supply, leapfrogging both Canada and Switzerland.

But it's still nebulous how 59% became 80% (or 85%).


As noted in the other answers, there's probably a confusion in some sources between "rare minerals" and (IUPAC) "rare earth" metals. Cobalt has been called the former (i.e. "rare mineral") in another Guardian piece, an article headlined by its staff this time.

So what about lithium batteries and rare earths? There's an article in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that probably clarifies much of the confusion(s). Basically lanthanum (a rare earth) was used is some old batteries:

Even in 2015, China accounted for more than 80 percent of global rare-earth production but also for about 70 percent of rare-earth demand—not an unreasonable balance. [...]

Some hybrid cars, like my 2001 Honda Insight, used nickel-metal-hydride batteries containing lanthanum [a rare earth], but those are now largely replaced by lighter lithium batteries, which typically use no lanthanum. (Both kinds of batteries are also recyclable, and infrastructure for recycling is emerging.) Tesla’s market-leading lithium batteries, like its motors, use no rare earths at all. Non-lithium batteries and potent potential substitutes for batteries (notably graphene ultracapacitors) are also emerging. [...]

Some writers claim that lithium, a light metal occasionally confused with rare earths by novices, is too scarce to support a big electric-car industry—a surprise to firms with vast lithium deposits in diverse countries.

This article does not specifically say that cobalt can be confused for a rare earth, but since lithium can... Furthermore, a blog on the site of the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the confusion can include cobalt:

Specifically, the use of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other metals that are part of an EV lithium-ion battery pack has raised red flags about the poor human rights and worker protection records in the countries where these materials are mined.

A lot of these warnings have been incorrectly categorized under “EVs and rare earth metals.” Though neither lithium nor cobalt are rare earth metals, and rare earth metals aren’t nearly as rare as precious metals like gold, platinum, and palladium, there are important issues surrounding the production of lithium-ion batteries that must be acknowledged and addressed.

And if you need more proof that the confusion is likely, an article in The (Toronto) Star calls cobalt a "rare metal".

  • Cobold is not a metal that's commonly counted as rare earth metal, so has little to do with the claim in the question. – Christian Jan 12 '18 at 12:17
  • @Christian: The Guardin seems to think it is, and this time it's not in a reader's letter: theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/29/… – Fizz Jan 12 '18 at 12:24
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    @Christian Hmm... The quote in the question said "rare metals," not "rare earth metals." It's possible that rather than being a mistake (as other answers have interpreted and as I originally guessed when reading it,) that they literally just meant "metals that are rare" and were referring to cobalt. – reirab Jan 12 '18 at 15:33
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As you can read in this article, the main metals used in the common design of Li-ion battery are Lithium and Cobalt; lithium is quite abundant, but cobalt is a bit harder to find. It is usually produced as a by-product of nickel mining, and the main source has been the DRC (Congo); there, the use of child "labor" has been getting significant public exposure, and in response a number of large users of battery technology (Apple, Tesla) are seeking more responsible ways of sourcing (including recycling). There are also other technologies being developed (using Nickel, Manganese, Titanium) that do not rely on cobalt.

According to the cobalt institute, China "mines or refines" 45k tonnes of cobalt per year, out of a global production of about 94k tonnes. Interestingly, while the article states the DRC is responsible for 55% of the world production of cobalt, their table suggests that the DRC is not a major source of refined cobalt (400 tonnes) - probably because the ore is sent to other countries (China) for refining.

Note that there are other rare earth metals used in the manufacture of medical equipment, electronics and magnets (examples include neodymium, dysprosium, lutetium, ...) that are almost exclusively mined in China. This means that China does have a significant lever to enable (or throttle) the adaptation of advanced technology.

So while China certainly has positioned itself as a key source for strategically important materials, I would say that the claim in the letter is "doubtful".

  • I do not see that article saying "lithium is quite abundant, but cobalt is a bit harder to find" - in fact they may be roughly similarly abundant in the Earth's crust and cobalt production is higher – Henry Jan 14 '18 at 18:12
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Some of the answers are referring to "rare earth" elements. There is nothing in the claim or lithium ion batteries related to rare earth elements.

Lithium is the only metal ubiquitous to lithium ion batteries.

China produced 2000/35,000 or 6% according the 2017 USGS report on lithium.

Many lithium ion batteries also contain cobalt.

China produced 7,700/123,000 or 6% according to the 2017 USGS report on cobalt

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