U.S. and Canadian producers of heavy rare earth metals are poised to benefit as China becomes a net importer of some of the materials as early as 2014, said Peter Cashin, chief executive officer of Quest Rare Minerals Ltd.
“They’ll be a very important consumer for our products,” Cashin said in an interview. “They are an unanticipated consumer; most of the assumptions have been for non-Chinese consumers. The Chinese would be a huge market for us.”
China is the world’s biggest producer of rare earths, 17 chemically similar metallic elements used in the defense, renewable-energy and electronics industries by companies such as Apple Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Boeing Co. As China develops its high-tech industries, the Asian country is expected to become an importer of some rare earths by 2014, a year earlier than it forecast early last year.
While China produces 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements — up from 27 percent in 1990 — it’s a growing consumer of the materials due to the emergence of clean-energy and defense-related technologies, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China held about half of the world’s reserves of rare earths last year, with 55 million metric tons, compared with 19 million tons in Russia and 13 million tons in the U.S.