60 Minutes: Rare metals used in most tech products could be cut off from U.S. by trade war with China

From smartphones to cars and defense missiles, modern U.S. life depends on rare earth elements, but China dominates the industry and may end U.S. access to the unusual metals.

Nearly five years ago, we reported a story on something called rare earth elements. Now, they've become a major element of the U.S.-China trade war. Rare earths are unusual metals that can be found in almost every piece of high tech you can think of: from new cars to precision-guided missiles to the screen you're watching this story on right now.

China controls roughly 80% of the mining, refining and processing of rare earths. Now,in response to President Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods, Beijing is making not-so-subtle threats to cut off our supply of rare earths. And that's especially troubling, because as we reported in 2015, it was the United States that started the rare earth revolution in the first place.

It all began here at this mine in Mountain Pass, California, an hour west of Las Vegas, when geologists first identified rare earth elements deep in the Mojave Desert. They were considered geological oddities, until the 60s when it was discovered that one of these elements, "europium," enhanced the color red in TV sets and soon the rare earth industry was born.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Rare earth chemistry is fascinating. There's so many more things that we could be doing with rare earths.

Constantine Karayannopoulos, then-chairman of Molycorp, which owned and operated the Mountain Pass mine for six decades, took us to the heart of the operation.

Lesley Stahl: Is this considered a big mine?

Constantine Karayannopoulos: In terms of rare earth standards, yes. It's one of the biggest in the world.

Lesley Stahl: Are we actually walking on rare earth elements right now?

Constantine Karayannopoulos: We're physically on the ore body.

Lesley Stahl: We are right on it?

Constantine Karayannopoulos: It starts at the top of the mine, then comes down and we're walking on it and it goes in that direction.

So what are rare earth elements? If you ever took high school chemistry you learned that they're clumped together at the end of the periodic table...atomic numbers 57 through 71... and they have difficult-to-pronounce Greek or Scandanavian names.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium, terbium...

Some of them are phosphorescent. Erbium amplifies light, and is used in fiber-optic cables. Gadolinium has magnetic properties and is used in MRI machines and X-rays. As for neodymium? You may be carrying some of it in your pocket.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Next time your phone vibrates, think of us because the vibration motor is a small motor that contains a tiny neodymium magnet in it.

Karayannopoulos showed us around a new model home to illustrate that rare earths are making our appliances energy efficient like state-of-the-art refrigerators, touch screen thermostats, energy efficient light bulbs, the air conditioning systems. They're also in our cars in the form of catalytic converters, sensors and hybrid car batteries.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Hybrids, in particular use a lot more because they contain electric motors that would not function without rare earths.

A Prius has roughly 25 pounds of rare earths. And they're hidden in plain sight in our every day lives, in our computers and gadgets, even the lights and cameras we used to film this story are chock full of rare earths.

Lesley Stahl: What I'm getting from you is that modern life depends on these elements.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Absolutely.

Despite their name - rare earths are not rare. Small amounts can be found in your backyard. They're trapped in what looks like ordinary rock.

But there are only a few places on earth with concentrations high enough to mine.

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Rare earths normally are found in very, very low concentrations. This is probably running something in the 25 percent grade.

Lesley Stahl: That's good?

Constantine Karayannopoulos: Which is remarkable. To anyone who has ever worked with rare earths, this is a thing of beauty.

But getting the rare earths out of that rock is nasty business requiring toxic acids and lots of water. In fact, the mine was shut down by the state of California in 1998 after radioactive water seeped into the surrounding Mojave Desert from an underground pipe. The mine lay dormant for a decade, giving China an opportunity.

Dan McGroarty: The Chinese made a very conscious decision to enter that industry.

Dan McGroarty was special assistant to President George Herbert Walker Bush and has advised the U.S. government on critical materials. When the Molycorp mine closed, he says China was already well on its way to becoming the king of rare earths.

Dan McGroarty: There's a point at which the lines cross. The United States production declines. Chinese production's ramping up. Those lines cross somewhere around 1986.

Lesley Stahl: So how did they pull it off? What were the factors that allowed them to basically take this away from us?

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