The Geopolitics of 17 Very Obscure Minerals

China has been the world’s primary source of rare earths since the 1990s. And that makes them much more than just a commodity.

It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Rare earths aren't the world's sexiest commodity. The 17 elements are notoriously difficult to extract from the ground and have brazenly obscure names. (Don't make the classic rookie mistake of confusing yttrium with ytterbium.) But what they lack in branding, they certainly make up for in utility and ubiquity: they’re essential to products as wide-ranging as wind turbines, smartphones, high-tech weapon systems, and even your fishing reel.

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