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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Malawi expects Australia's Lynas Corp to start mining for rare earth elements in the southern African country "as soon as possible", the natural resources minister said on Tuesday.
Rare earths are some of the world's most obscure elements used is some of the world's most familiar devices including cell phones, flat screen TVs and microwave ovens.
The commodities are almost exclusively produced by China, which unnerved global powers last year by threatening to restrict exports to help it settle political scores.
Grain Malunga, Malawi's minister of natural resources, said the country has awarded exclusive rare earths exploration licences to five foreign companies over the past three years, including Lynas and uranium miners Paladin Energy and Resource Star.
"Some of the companies are now at bankable feasibility studies, other are at basic exploration, other companies, like Lynas, we are expecting them to start actual mining ...as soon as possible," Malunga told Reuters on the sidelines of an African power conference in Johannesburg.
He added: "Rare earth minerals are also associated with radio active minerals like uranium, so what is happening is that we have companies that are looking for uranium, but they are also looking for rare earths."
Malunga said Lynas was the only company with a rare earths mining licence so far and the elements would largely be for exports.
"We don't have the technologies for doing the value addition ...they will do the processing, especially the concentration of the rare earth minerals, and they are going to export to Malaysia or China where further concentration is done," he said.
Africa, Australia and Canada are seen as holding the key to a geopolitical battle being fought to end China's stranglehold over the obscure elements.