Startup tech firms are racing to transform the way rare earths are refined for the transition to clean energy, a push aimed at turbocharging the West's expansion into the niche sector that underpins billions of electronic devices.

The existing standard to refine these strategic minerals, known as solvent extraction, is an expensive and dirty process that China has spent the past 30 years mastering. MP Materials, Lynas Rare Earths and other Western rare earths companies have struggled at times to deploy it due to technical complexities and pollution concerns.

Rare earths are a group of 17 metals used to make magnets that turn power into motion for electric vehicles, cell phones and other electronics. While U.S. scientists helped develop solvent extraction for rare earths in the 1950s, radioactive waste from the process gradually made it unpopular in the United States.