New research presents an alternative to mining for essential rare earth metals : The Indicator from Planet Money Rare earth metals are everywhere – in cars, drones, the device you're listening on right now — and China has the market cornered. But a new laboratory breakthrough could level the playing field.

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An end to China's rare earth monopoly?

An end to China's rare earth monopoly?

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Pierre Verdy/AFP via Getty Images
Trucks carry rocks from an ore mine.
Pierre Verdy/AFP via Getty Images

Mining for rare earth metals, essential components of the magnets used in most high-tech manufacturing, has assumed vital strategic importance as more and more industries depend on a limited supply. And for decades, China has been the undisputed kingpin: it exports over 80 percent of the world's rare earth metals. Nations across the globe are scrambling to develop their own mining infrastructure — or even look outside the atmosphere — to compete.

But laboratory discoveries could turn the industry on its head. Scientists claim to have discovered a way to synthesize a compound with the same properties at a fraction of the price, a breakthrough that could have serious political and economic implications.

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