Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Dan Sharpe: Rare Earth Elements in China - An Under-Publicised Resource

Source: USDA
Dan Sharpe, our regular columnist and GfGD University Ambassador in Leeds, writes about the importance of Rare Earth Metals and challenges surrounding them. You can read Dan's full archive of posts here.

The rare earth element (REE) is a name given to a set of seventeen elements in the centre of the periodic table. Although REEs are relatively abundant in the rocks on Earth their geochemical properties means that they are rarely concentrated to such an extent that they are economical to produce. In recent studies it has been exposed that China could hold as much as fifty percent of the world’s REE reserves, ensuring they dominate the world market in this sector.

Rare-earths are used in just about every electronic device you own. They are found in computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries and mobile phones amongst other things, and are often overlooked with regards to their importance in our technology rich lifestyle. With the news emerging that China is so rich in these metals, can it not be suggested that other developing nations could hold under-explored areas that are rich in REEs such as Scandium, Cerium and Neodymium. The problem however, is that countries such as China are developing rapidly and therefore need sources of income and natural resources themselves, and have strictly regulated the export of REEs. This recently culminated in a complaint filed by the United States, Japan and the European Union against China (who currently control ninety-five percent of the global production of REEs) to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The complaint outlines that as well as modern technologies, REEs are crucial to generating new, greener energy sources. The U.S. Department of Energy says that the release of new clean energy sources could be dramatically slowed by the supply challenges facing the REE industry. Photovoltaic films, regenerative braking in hybrid cars, larger scale wind turbines and highly efficient fluorescent lighting all require a constant and increasing supply of these materials and a new trade action aims to loosen China’s regulations with regards to rare-earth metal exports which other nations claim has kept the unit cost of these materials relatively high outside the country itself.

So this situation looks like it is under control, and a dramatically larger amount of rare-earths will soon become available if this trade action is effective. Is it enough though? Studies are showing that we may soon be experiencing a shortage of this valuable resource due to supply and demand issues. Admittedly this is largely down to China’s restrictions on export, but this is not the only problem facing the industry. In 2011, an Australian mining company was suggested to be finishing a US$230 million plant refining slightly radioactive Lanthanide in Malaysia however the authorities confirmed in October 2011 that no license was given to finish the development. It was claimed that the plant, based in Kuantan, would meet the demand for one third of REE production, excluding China.

NASA: Acid Mine Drainage (Rio Tinto River, Spain)

REE production can have serious environmental effects if not properly managed, and in the end this fear was what proved to be the downfall of the Kuantan plant. The tailings produced are often slightly radioactive and toxic acids are required during the refinement process. Even the major mine in China, reported to supply much of the world’s rare-earths, is thought to have cause significant damage to the environment with fears that the toxic waste may even have been released into the waters of the area.

Rare-earth metal production can be a controversial, yet drastically important industry. With China holding the vast majority of resources close to their chest, it is important to branch out and explore new areas to meet an exponentially growing demand. This industry is severely challenged by environmental concern, and quite rightly, but with proper management the world needs to focus on the exploration of these elements in order to look towards a more efficient, sustainable planet. You can forget oil exploration for now, the new controversial extraction industry has arrived, and it will certainly be sticking around for a while to come.

Further Reading