Schumer to China: Give us our rare earth elements!

Jan 19, 2011

With Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington this week, members of New York's Congressional delegation are urging President Obama to get tough on what to they say are unfair Chinese trade practices.

You've probably heard accusations about China manipulating its currency, flaunting intellectual property laws, and illicitly driving down manufacturing costs.

But now Senator Chuck Schumer wants you to add another perceived sin to the list: China's tightening grip on the global supply of rare earth elements.

Bust out your periodic tables.

Yesterday, Schumer was in Rochester and Buffalo, calling on President Obama to confront President Hu on the issue of rare earth elements.

It's hard to imagine something typically associated with high school chemistry causing such a stir (noble gases, anyone?).

So why all the fuss over this particular group of elements?

In short, the 17 so-called rare earth metals are extremely important to a wide range of high-tech products.

Wind turbines and hybrid cars are said to be among the biggest users, but rare earth minerals can also be found in everything from aluminum baseball bats, to iPhones, to weapons systems.

The potential problem: China produces about 97 percent of the world's supply.

Which brings us to Schumer's visit to Sydor Optics.

When they're not hosting massive clam bakes, the Rochester-based company does brisk business in grinding lenses for 3-D movie projectors.

The key compound they use to get the job done is cerium oxide - you guessed it, one of the rare earth metals.

The company says prices have skyrocketed since China started cutting back export quotas.

According to Sydor, a pound of cerium oxide cost $8.50 last September. Now it costs $45.

Schumer says the issue of rare earth elements may sound "esoteric," but it's actually a big deal.

"It’s a serious threat to our economy, our jobs and our national security. China’s like a bully in a schoolyard. It’s about time someone stood up to them."