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Rare earth magnets: Navigating economic and security challenges in the shadow of China’s dominance

The increasing dependence on China for rare earth elements has raised economic and national security concerns in both the US and Europe. Particularly critical is the rare earth permanent magnets sector, which holds sway over the global climate economy.

China’s stronghold on rare earth production, exceeding 60% of the world’s output, extends beyond extraction to downstream manufacturing, notably in rare earth magnets. This dominance has been facilitated by the absence of a Western hemisphere supply chain, allowing China to expand its commercial market share.

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In recent years, major players like Hitachi Metals have relocated magnet production to China, enticed by proximity to raw materials. Hitachi’s joint venture with a Chinese manufacturer underscores this strategic shift.

Understanding rare earth magnets

Rare earth magnets, retaining magnetic properties even in external fields, are crucial for diverse high-tech applications. They’re classified into light and heavy elements based on atomic weight, impacting their abundance and application range.

Samarium-Cobalt (SmCo) Magnet: Developed in the 1960s in the US, it boasts high coercivity and thermal stability, making it indispensable for military applications like precision-guided missiles and aircraft technologies.

Neodymium-Iron-Boron (NdFeB) Magnet: Emerging in the 1980s, it dominates global production due to its cost-effectiveness and potency. Its strength and compactness are ideal for defense weaponry and medical devices, among others.

Rare earth magnets in defense and healthcare

Both SmCo and NdFeB magnets play pivotal roles in defense, contributing to weapons systems and equipment reliability. In healthcare, neodymium magnets are widely used in medical devices like MRI machines and have shown promise in treatments for depression and bone formation.

Looking ahead

As reliance on rare earth magnets grows, diversification of supply chains and strategic investments in alternative sources become imperative. Reducing dependence on China will be crucial to safeguarding economic and security interests in this critical sector.”

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