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Heavy metal

China’s monopoly on rare earth metals could choke economies across the world

By Robin Powell   December 2009

The Molycorp Minerals mine in Mountain Pass, California

Cast your eyes down to the lower reaches of the periodic table, and you find a row of exotic-sounding elements that you probably never got to in chemistry lessons. Here lie 17 elements known as rare earth metals, a group consisting of lanthanides (atomic numbers 57-71), scandium (21) and yttrium (39)—the latter owing its name to the similarly unpronounceable Swedish town where it was discovered in the late 18th century. Yet rare elements are not quite as unusual as their names might suggest. In fact, they are everywhere: in your mobile…

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