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First the science. There are 17 rare earth metals; they have got their own special bit of the Periodic Table. In nature they are mainly found clumped together underground in specific types of rock and ore, so they have to be separated. It takes a large quantity of rock to make a tiny quantity of rare earth. And the rock can often be radioactive. For now just try and remember two elements - Lanthanum and Neodymium.
In the early s a US company called Ovonics perfected a rechargeable battery using rare earth metals that would form the basis of a whole branch of experimentation in electric and hybrid cars.
But remember the name Ovonics. Meanwhile in General Motors discovered a new compound that could make cheap, highly effective, permanent magnets, again using a rare earth - in this case Neodymium. The primary effort at turning science into commercial technology here took place in the United States, with GM at the hub.
And both technologies rely on rare earth metals. Now the geology. There's even some in Greenland. But the mother lode is sitting under the mountains 50km 30 miles north of the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, in the Bayan Obo mine.