Rare earths, found in everything from Apple Inc's iPhones to energy-efficient lighting and wind turbines, gained global attention last year as China, which produces more than 90 percent of global supply, repeatedly clamped down on exports. Prices of the individual oxides, alloys and metals soared. Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove said that even at less-inflated rare earth prices, the cost to make light-emitting diode (LED) products using yttrium, a rare earth, is twice that of Nanosys lighting -- and LEDs are expected ultimately to replace standard light bulbs once they are competitive on price.

"We have an ambition to move into general illumination, probably in the next year or so," said Hartlove.