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China's Rare Earth May Become a Bit Less Rare

TAIPEI, Taiwan ( TheStreet) -- It's just a token, even if the token might be made from dysprosium.

China's Ministry of Commerce said last week it would raise the maximum amount of rare earth element exports by 2.7% this year. That means more shipments of prized industrial-use chemicals that are ensconced in China's subsurface rocks and are hard to separate out.

The higher export quota equals 30,996 metric tons of rare earth materials, a term that refers to 17 different elements that are hard to find or process outside China.

In theory, manufacturers from defense to electric vehicles should cheer the news, as China had set off a panic by restricting rare earth exports earlier. The industry and foreign trade reps viewed China's curbs from 2005 as a move to protect its reserves. Countries such as the U.S. have complained to the World Trade Organization that China is hoarding rare earth elements.

End users may find it easier to get those elements (Beijing will even hold prices stable, analysts believe), but the kinder export quota will make little impact over the next two to eight years as offshore competitors -- potentially solid investments -- have already started to develop better processing technology.

Today China not only produces most of the world's rare earth materials, estimated at 95% of the total, it also operates the most advanced machinery to separate those elements from the earth itself and to process them.

Automakers in Japan including Toyota Motor (TM) should gain from Beijing's export quota increase as they need the materials to produce hybrid vehicles. A handful of importers in France and Germany may welcome China's move for the same reason.

But those buyers may ultimately turn to foreign firms that are developing cleaner, more cost-effective means to separate rare earth elements, refine them or use them in the production of metals. Although China's technology leads today in these departments, players in Australia, Germany and the U.S. are catching up.

Jack Lifton, co-founding principal of U.S. market intelligence firm Technology Metals Research, has become a rare expert in the small but fast-changing field.

After China made its announcement last week, Lifton wrote this to me in an email: "The Chinese 'increase' in export quantities is trivial and unimportant to the most important rare earth 'processors' and refiners or metal makers outside of China."

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