Breaking China's Stranglehold on Rare Earths

Spend Matters welcomes a guest post from Vajid Idrees of Mintec.

I wrote about rare earth metals (REMs) back in November 2012, highlighting both the world’s dependence on Chinese production and the fact that the Chinese government’s export policies were constraining world supply. What has changed since then?

Well, China is still the global leader, producing around 90% of the world’s REMs, with the remainder being produced by the US, Australia, India, Malaysia, Brazil and a few others. But after China announced its export quota system, countries such as the US and Japan began actively looking for other suppliers. As a result, there have been some interesting supply developments.

 REMs

For the US, this has meant going back to the Mountain Pass mine in California and reopening the mine that had made the US the world leader in rare earth metal production throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Molycorp Minerals LLC, who operates the mine, has introduced a new, environmentally friendly way of disposing the toxic waste left over from the refining process, the production of which was a major reason for closing the mine in the first place. Molycorp does not want a Chinese-style toxic waste lake, which could cause the soil around the lake to have levels of radioactive thorium that are 36 times higher than normal. Thorium is a by-product of REM mining. Exposure to high levels of it can lead to lung and pancreatic cancer. Molycorp has introduced a new method whereby the waste is processed to remove water, which is then reused. Cement is added to the remaining paste-like substance, which is then laid out in a lined disposal site, thus reducing the chances of groundwater contamination. The US produced an estimated 7,000 tons of REM in 2012, helping reduce the amount imported. However, this is still far less than the 133,600 tons produced in China in 2011.

Japan, also heavily reliant on Chinese REMs, has recently discovered deposits in its waters around the island of Minami-Torishima. The deposits are highly concentrated (approximately 20-30 times more than deposits found in China) and hopefully can be extracted relatively easily using pressurized air with little disturbance caused to the surroundings. The deposits do not contain thorium, making waste disposal significantly easier than in other land-based mines. There is enough REM to keep Japan going for an estimated 220 years.

With these developments in the US and Japan, coupled with others around the world, it looks like rare earth metals may not be quite so rare in the future.

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