Editor's Note: Prices for many precious and base metals hit record highs in 2010, as economic uncertainty rattled around the globe. What does 2011 hold for gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper and other metals? Kitco News reporters have prepared a series of stories which examine what is in store for 2011, not only for metals but for currencies, stocks and the overall economy: 2011 Precious Metals Outlook

(Kitco News) - China’s dominance of global rare earths output will continue in 2011, yet at the same time other nations are starting to make preparations to pull more metal from the ground and reduce China’s stranglehold on the market in future years.

Until the last few months, the mention of rare earth metals likely would elicit a blank stare unless the conversation involved someone in a specific sector that uses the elements.

Rare earth metals, known as REEs, burst into the mainstream media limelight during the past several months, with articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, on major wire services and televised segments on CNBC. The big exposure came with a flap that developed when China, which controls 95% to 97% of the current REE global output, stopped exporting to the Japanese.

Fears continue over the supply of rare earth metals, which consist of 17 elements used in creating a variety of consumer, environmental and industrial-driven technological products. Despite some movement expected in 2011 and beyond to develop greater supply from other global sources, the Chinese still hold the shovel.

“They have the ability to dictate the market if they want to,” said Charl Malan, senior metals and mining analyst at Van Eck Global. The company offers a number of metals-related investments and this fall started the first U.S.-listed exchange-traded fund for equities of companies involved with producing, refining and recycling rare earth/strategic metals.

“With rare earths growth in the next five years about 225,000 tons, that’s about 9% (year-on-year) growth number,” Malan said. “Currently, supply is about 125,000 tons, out of which China produces about 120,000 tons.”

Major importers have come to depend on China due to its ability to manufacture REEs at a reasonable cost. The embargo China placed on exports to Japan has been devastating to the Japanese and shows the strength of the REE demand China commands. Japan was the leading importer of REEs.

“News out of China is a big part of it,” said The Mercenary Geologist Mickey Fulp. “It is a purely speculative sector. As news comes out of China about export quotas, relaxing export quotas or news of any kind on that regard…supply and demand fundamentals of the rare earth elements sector is going to affect prices.”

Fulp said China controls well over 90% of the current supply. The dominance is mainly because the Chinese have developed the ability to manufacture these minerals in such a way that the rest of the world could be falling behind quickly, not because rare earth metals are really that rare.

“For me, if I look at the bigger picture for rare earths, this is what’s essential,” Malan of Van Eck said. “There’s an abundance of rare earths around the world. It’s not so much the mining, it’s the fact we don’t have the manufacturing capacity and we don’t have the skill sets or the equipment. That’s my biggest concern.”

Malan believes that China has invested its resources in such a way that it is now properly positioned for the future in terms of manufacturing capacity, but more importantly, well placed from a knowledge standpoint.

“To have the refined product really work, you obviously need very highly educated, highly skilled people specifically within an industry,” Malan said. “There’s something like 800 people with Ph.D.s specifically linked to rare earths. They don’t just focus on the equipment, the processing and the manufacturing side of it but also the manpower and the knowledge base behind it.”

A half century ago China was not among the leading producers of REEs. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S., India, South Africa and Brazil were considered to be the front-runners in production. During the 1980s, China began underselling competitors, leading to consumers purchasing cheap supply from the Chinese.

This had a negative effect on REE mines in several countries, leading to most being shut down. Molycorp Minerals mine in California was once the largest REE producer in the world but was forced to close in 2002. The mine is set to reopen in 2011 and should begin contributing production by 2012.

“In 2012, there will be additional supply from Molycorp which will be 20,000 (metric) tons,” said Marino G. Pieterse, publisher and editor of Gold Letter International, Uranium Letter International and Rare Earths Elements International.

Molycorp is not the only rare earths company beginning REE production in the next few years.

“In 2013 you’ll have three other companies that will begin producing REEs,” Pieterse said. “Frontier Rare Earths will produce 10-20,000 (metric) tons, Greenland Minerals and Earths LTD will have 40,000 (metric) tons and then there’s Rare Elements Resources LTD, which will have 20,000 (metric) tons.”

Lynas Corporation in Australia is also slated to begin REE production, with tonnage reaching over 20,000.

Analysts said that the move towards wider production could mean there will be an over-supply of REEs by 2014-2015, which will bring stability to prices.

Despite the title of being rare, REEs are in abundance. With countries other than China developing the means to manufacture these metals coupled with the need to introduce and maintain greener technologies, REEs are expected to perform well in the coming years.

“I see bigger and better things for the entire sector,” Fulp said.

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Here is a list of the 17 REEs and their uses;

Scandium 

Aluminum alloy: aerospace

Yttrium

Phosphors, ceramics, lasers

Lanthanum

Re-chargeable batteries

Cerium

Batteries, catalysts, glass polishing

Praseodymium

Magnets, glass colorant

Neodymium

Magnets, lasers, glass

Promethium

Nuclear batteries

Samarium

Magnets, lasers, lighting

Europium

TV color phosphors: red

Gadolinium

Superconductors, magnets

Terbium

Phosphors: green, fluorescent lights

Dysprosium

Magnets, lasers

Holmium

Lasers

Erbium

Lasers, vanadium steel

Thulium

X-ray source, ceramics

Yterrbium

Infrared lasers, high reactive glass

Lutetium

Catalyst, PET scanners

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By Alex Létourneau of Kitco News aletourneau@kitco.com

2011 Precious Metals Outlook

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