China move on rare earths could hurt West

Ask the average western world resident what they know about the rare earth elements and you’ll likely get either a blank stare or painfully vague recollections from high school chemistry.

Yet, the 17 elements that are classified as rare earths are critical to manufacturing a wide variety of high-tech products, everything from missiles and computer hard drives to iPods and cell phones.

Which is why China’s call this week for greater use of rare earths for its own domestic manufacturing – a de facto admission that Beijing seeks to limit exports of the vital resource – is bad news for technology-dependent nations such as those in North America and the European Union.

China is the world’s largest producer of rare earths, producing more than 97 percent of the world’s supply, according to CNN.

Its move to dictate production and exports have raised a global outcry, according to Agence France-Presse.

Beijing’s goal is to boost the use of rare earths in its own high-end manufacturing, said the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

The nation will “give full play to China’s dominant position of rare earths resources to expand the scale of the rare earths new materials industry,” it said in a development plan for 2011-2015 posted on its website late Wednesday.

Analysts said the move was aimed at using more rare earths domestically instead of exporting them, according to the wire service.

“This has sent a clear signal that China does not encourage exporting rare earths,” Sang Yongliang, an analyst at Guotai Junan Securities, told Agence France-Presse. “It is in the interest of China to export processed products instead of raw materials.”

Despite their name, nearly all the rare earth elements are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust.

However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms.

Rare earth elements include:

  • Scandium, a key ingredient in aerospace components;
  • Lanthanum, used in hydrogen storage, battery-electrodes, camera lenses and as a fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries;
  • Cerium, employed as a chemical oxidizing agent, a polishing powder, a catalyst for self-cleaning ovens, and as a fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries; and
  • Gadolinium, used in lasers, X-ray tubes, computer memories and as an MRI contrast agent.

To build up the industry, the Chinese government will seek to develop manufacturing centers in Beijing and the northern region of Inner Mongolia, which has huge reserves of rare earths and is a key producer, the ministry said.

The other major production bases will be in the eastern provinces of Jiangxi and Zhejiang, the southeastern province of Fujian and the southwestern province of Sichuan, which are also rich in the sought-after elements, it said.

China has angered its trade partners by restricting overseas shipments of rare earths, which critics say is aimed at driving up global prices and forcing foreign firms to relocate to the Asian country to access the metals, according to Agence France-Presse.

But Beijing says the restrictions are necessary to conserve the natural resource, limit harm to the environment from excessive mining and meet domestic demand.

The government has set its 2012 export quota for rare earths at around 30,000 tons, the same level as 2011. However, exporters only filled roughly half the quota last year.

2 thoughts on “China move on rare earths could hurt West

  1. Pingback: Rare earth mineral reserve found off Japan « The Cotton Boll Conspiracy

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