Rare Earth conference in Las Vegas – how to build an ex-China supply chain

Rare Earth conference in Las Vegas – how to build an ex-China supply chain

Project Blue joined the Metal Events 18th International Rare Earth conference in Las Vegas. The first time going west for the conference attracted a large US delegate representation.

Blue View

The conversation focussed on the political agenda for rare earth elements (REEs): China dominance and building an independent supply chain. Project Blue kicked off the conference by defining the landscape of critical materials and the role that rare earths play within the energy transition narrative. The interest in rare earths has been piqued through the use of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) magnets, which are enabling energy efficiency in motors and generators, specifically in the drivetrain of electric vehicles (EVs). While the outlook for rare earths in energy transition is agreed to be very positive, there are still several questions about what the supply chain landscape will look like.

Speakers at the event highlighted, that since the 2010 price spikes for rare earths that emphasised China’s dominance and hold over the industry, it has only been Lynas Rare Earths in Australia that has managed to establish any significant position in the industry – with difficulties along the way as per notes from the company itself. Nevertheless, a myriad of projects remains and the latest released timelines from several of these are targeting a 2025-2027 production start. But how many of these projects will be successful and is the market sufficiently different to 2010 to encourage investment? Only a handful of rare earth separation projects have been announced and even smaller volumes for magnet production, without which mine projects are limited to feeding a Chinese supply chain.

Looking at the global supply-demand balance, there is a need for more material to enter the market and China has been looking beyond its borders for feed. However, earlier this year, China reminded the industry of its large resource through a significant ramp-up in production quotas and that the magnet supply chain is its core target for growth – in line with the country’s latest overall five-year plan. This begs the question if political agendas in the EU and USA can support growth in magnet production supply chains.

The industry is paying close attention to MP Materials in the USA, which has become the largest mine producer of REEs outside of China. MP Materials, however, has Chinese ownership and is currently supplying all its rare earths to China, for a healthy financial position, while the company expands downstream with support from the US Department of Defense. If MP Materials manages to redirect its feed to a domestic US supply chain, will there be enough magnet capacity in the pipeline for other projects targeting ex-China supply chains to join?

The conversation included addressing the risk of substitution. With automotive OEMs well along the way to ramping up EV production lines, can rare earth supply chains outside of China support this growth, or will OEMs have to remain customers of Chinese magnet producers? (yes they will.) Other technologies exist and non-rare-earth motors have been developed, however, at a cost of efficiency. The supply-demand balance for rare earths is also not only contingent on new supply meeting demand, but also on technological developments in magnet making together with motor design that can help improve sustainable development.

The summary of the conference was that the industry has managed to improve its understanding of rare earth supply and demand dynamics, but if it is enough to help move independent supply chains across the line remains uncertain.

  • 24 Oct 2022
  • USA
  • Light rare earths
  • Heavy rare earths
  • REE magnets
  • Magnets & Motors

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