Monday, 28 September 2009

Rare Earths - closing the tap!

China produces 97% of the rare earth elements, a near global monopoly. These elements are used in batteries for hybrid cars, mobile phones, superconductors, lightweight magnets, wind turbines, radar systems, sophisticated lenses, military hardware and other high-tech and green technology products. As such products become a greater share of people's lives in both the developing and emerging world, the importance of these metals will continue to rise.

It wasn't always the case, see graph, but cost advantages on the Chinese side led to the closing of mines elsewhere, specially in the US where in addition to this environmental infractions led to the closure of Mountain Pass mine, California, the largest deposit of rare earth metals outside of China. 

Rare Earth production - historical data (1000s tonnes)

Deng Xiaoping once remarked that the Mideast had oil, but the PRC had rare earths. 

During the last 3 years China has gradually reduced the amount of Rare Earths it allows its companies to export.

The export quota for 2009 is 12% lower than for 2008 will be (57,000 tonnes... already the equivalent of a single cargo vessel). For 2010 those in the know expect cuts as large as 30%.

These cuts have the double effect of strangling hi-tech industries outside the People's Republic (making many in the Western defense sector nervous) and forcing hi-tech companies to relocate manufacturing to China, where they can easily procure such raw materials. 

Still, They may be called rare earth elements, but they’re not all that rare. They are more abundant then gold or silver. The 'rare' adjective appears results from the fact that they rarely show up in concentrated form in a mineral or deposit.

More significantly: reserves are not concentrated in China either (see chart, data from the USGS), so with price competitive extracting technologies and adequate environmental procedures, the dependence on China can be broken. Furthermore, if the prices are right, reserves are bound to grow as exploration becomes justified. It may also be worth to think a bit out of the box and look at economically viable way of exploring underwater deposits of rare earths.

Rare Earth reserves


Technical note: There are 17 rare earths that belong to the lanthanide family of elements in the periodic table, beginning with lanthanum (atomic no. 57) and ending with lutetium (atomic no. 71). Scandium (atomic no. 21) and yttrium (atomic no. 39) are also grouped with the lanthanide family because of their similar properties. There are 2 categories of rare earth elements - light rare earths and heavy rare earths - based on their atomic weights and location in the periodic table.
  • Light Rare Earths: Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium and Samarium (atomic nos. 57-62)
  • Heavy Rare Earths: Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, Lutetium (atomic nos. 63-71)