Concern over China’s monopoly of rare-earth minerals isn’t necessarily the disaster some believe it may be.
In September, the New York Times reported that China, in a trade tiff with Japan, stopped shipments of rare-earth minerals to its Asian neighbor. China denied this but the Times reported on Sept. 28 the Chinese government, while not admitting the existence of the ban, may have begun rescinding it.
Unless you’re a scientist or a periodic table of elements geek, rare-earth minerals might not strike a chord.
According to Foreign Policy, “Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table – known as lanthanides – plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia.”
“The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds,” the publication added.
For example, iPod headphones rely on neodymium, lutetium crystals make MRI machines work, terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs, scandium is essential for halogen lights and lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius.
Alternatives are available for some of the rare earths used in the above products, but for others, there simply isn’t a viable substitute, according to Foreign Policy.
The most commonly occurring rare earth metals – cerium, lanthanum, neodymium and yttrium – are actually more common in the Earth’s crust than lead and even silver, according to financial website Seeking Alpha.
However, they are much less likely to be concentrated in exploitable ore deposits, according to the US Geological Survey.
The United States once was largely self-sufficient in rare-earth elements, but in the past few years has become dependent upon imports from China, USGS adds.
Why China? Because of its ability to offer a secure supply at a favorable price, thanks in part to cheap labor and a lessened concern for the environment.
The move to restrict export of rare-earth minerals didn’t come completely out of the blue. China, predicting robust growth of its own auto industry, has been placing increasingly stringent export restrictions on rare earths, according to the Times.
But now that China has shown itself willing to play politics with a crucial natural resource, manufacturers may begin to get serious at considering other options.
Foreign Policy reports that a California mine called Mountain Pass, currently unable to compete because of China’s low-cost extraction methods, could potentially supply 20 percent of world demand of rare-earth minerals, while Lynas Corp.’s Mount Weld in Australia has the capacity to produce a similar amount.
“In fact, there are enough rare earths in the millions of tons of sands we already process for titanium dioxide (used to make white paint) to fill the gap, while we throw away 30,000 tons a year or so in the wastes of the aluminum industry,” the publication adds. “There’s that much or more in what we don’t bother to collect from the mining of phosphates for fertilizers, and no one has even bothered to measure how much there is in the waste from burning coal.”
All of which isn’t to say there aren’t issues involved with the extraction, cost and impact on the environment to be worked out before the world weans itself off the Chinese rare-earth teat.
But perhaps China’s economic shot across Japan’s bow is the wake-up call we need to take another look at the concept of self-sufficiency.