This month China announced the formation of a rare-earth industry association. After a series of other moves aimed at protecting its scarce and essential rare-earth resources, this should alarm investors, but it could lead to some potential opportunities. Investors' ability to profit will depend on their tolerance for the seismic activity in this space.
Rare earth: uncommon dirt?
Let's pause here to define what we're talking about. Rare-earth elements are prized for their magnetism, luminescence, and strength. Manufacturers use them in a stunning array of products, from smartphones to wind turbines to hybrid cars. No rare earths, no Angry Birds. For something so scarce and inaccessible, rare earths are ubiquitous in our everyday lives.
In the 80s the U.S. was the dominant source of rare earths. Since then it has lost nearly all of its capacity, and become almost completely dependent on imports for this precious resource.
The Manchurian element
China produces 97% of these elements and enjoys 99% of global separation capacity -- whereby the elements are separated from one another into useful form -- even though the country is home to only 50% of global reserves.
China has been tightening supply on rare earths for some time now. Many investors remember 2009, when the country set serious export quotas on these elements, much to the concern of foreign companies dependent on the flow of raw materials. This latest move to create an industry association was reportedly designed to consolidate a sprawling industry and manage the environmental risks of ore extraction. Cynics see an attempt to shore up production for domestic use.
Rare-earth specialists expect Chinese domestic demand to catch up with supply around 2015. That would leave a huge shortfall of a vital raw material for countries like the U.S. People should be a lot more concerned about this than they seem to be. Did I mention that rare earths are critical to many essential military applications?
Dig it up and sell it, right?
Let's consider the rare-earth value chain. Making money in this space is not as simple as digging stuff out of the ground and selling it. If you were grabbing your prospecting tools and heading for the hills, please reconsider. Mining is just the first stage of the value chain. Once the ores are extracted, they need to be separated into their valuable components, which sometimes exist in very small concentrations. After separation, the resulting oxides are refined into metal. Still not finished. Those metals are fabricated into alloys, and only then can magnets and other components be manufactured for use in finished products.
This is important, because experts believe that unless the U.S. has domestic or friendly capacity at every level of this value chain, the country will be vulnerable. Remember how I mentioned projections that Chinese domestic supply and demand would converge? That doesn't leave much for the rest of us.
Replace, reduce, or recycle
Some end users have responded by pursuing a "replace, reduce, or recycle" approach to their rare-earth inputs. Toyota's
Vestas Wind Systems (NasdaqOTH: VWSYF.PK), like other wind turbine manufacturers, relies on rare earths for the magnets that make its turbines more efficient. Vestas shares other companies' concerns about rare-earths supply and is responding in two ways. First, the company is searching for alternative supplies from other countries. Second, Vestas is emphasizing its technologies that rely less heavily on rare earths. This could leave Vestas playing catch-up with competitors who are actively pursuing new turbine technologies, irrespective of their reliance on rare earths.
One company shines through the gloom as a potential solution to rare-earth supply woes. Molycorp
Molycorp's "mine-to-magnet" strategy could redefine the industry. It is bringing its once-productive Mountain Pass mine back online in late 2012. Molycorp has also developed a proprietary separation process that stands to make the company the world's lowest-cost operator, with projected costs of about $2.77/kg, compared to China's estimated $5.58/kg. The company has also acquired several rare-earth separators, refiners, and alloy producers. See how Molycorp is covering that value chain?
Molycorp's recent announcement that it will buy Neo Material Technologies could be a true game-changer. The deal will allow Molycorp to produce valuable magnets that auto manufacturers and others prize. Experts believe this puts Molycorp in a position to guarantee not only supply, but prices. That, in turn, would likely stimulate demand as new applications are developed on the basis of a reliable supply.
All of this leaves Molycorp sitting on a gold mine -- rather, a rare-earths mine -- and it's going for paydirt. The ride will likely be bumpy, but still worth it.
If you want to learn about other technological paradigm shifts that will affect China, check out our free report, "The Future Is Made in America."
Fool contributor Sara E. Wright owns no shares of the companies mentioned in this article, but she does a mean Carole King in the shower.
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