Rare earth crisis: Innovate, or be crushed by China

Niobium Crystals

Laptops, cars, smartphones, TVs, MRI scanners, LCD displays, light bulbs, optical networks, jet engines, cameras, headphones, nuclear reactors. It might seem like a random selection of high-tech gizmos, but every single object on that list has one very important thing in common: Their manufacture requires one or more rare earth metals.

Rare earths — a block of seventeen elements in the middle of the Periodic Table — aren’t actually all that rare, but they tend to be very hard to obtain commercially. Generally, rare earth elements are only found in minute quantities in mineral deposits of clay, sand, and rock (earths!), which must then be processed to extract the rare metals — an expensive process, and also costly for the environment as billions of tons of ore must be mined and refined to yield just a few tons of usable rare earths.

Many rare earths are also geochemically rare — they can only be mined in a handful of countries. This is simply down to Mother Nature being a tempestuous so-and-so: Some countries have deposits of rare earths, and some don’t. This results in massively skewed production (China famously produces 97% of the world’s rare earth metals), and, as you can imagine, a lot of national security and geopolitical troubles, too.

It doesn’t stop with rare earths, either: Many other important elements, such as platinum, are only available from one or two mines in the entire world. If South Africa sustained a huge earthquake — or was on the receiving end of a thermonuclear bomb, perhaps — the world’s supply of platinum would literally dry up over night. The continued existence of technologies that rely on platinum, like car exhaust catalytic converters and fuel cells, would be unlikely.

If geochemistry and politics weren’t enough, though, we even have to factor in ethical concerns: Just like blood/conflict diamonds — diamonds that originate from war-torn African nations, where forced labor is used and the proceeds go towards buying more weapons for the warlord — some rare metals could be considered “blood metals.” Tantalum, an element that’s used to make the capacitors found in almost every modern computer, is extracted from coltan — and the world’s second largest producer of coltan is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the home of the bloodiest wars since World War II. Not only do the proceeds from coltan exports get spent on weapons, but the main focus of the wars were the stretches of land rich in diamonds and coltan.

Also along the same humanist vein, it’s important to note that extracting these rare elements is usually a very expensive and disruptive activity. Indium, probably the single most important element for the manufacture of LCDs and touchscreens, is recovered in minute quantities as a byproduct of zinc extraction. You can’t just set up an indium plant; you have to produce zinc in huge quantities, find buyers and arrange transport for that zinc, and then go to town on producing indium. In short, extracting rare elements is generally a very intensive task that is likely to disrupt or destroy existing settlements and businesses.

The rare earth apocalypse

The doomsday event that everyone is praying will never come to pass, but which every Western nation is currently planning for, is the eventual cut-off of Chinese rare earth exports. Last year, 97% of the world’s rare earth metals were produced in China — but over the last few years, the Chinese government has been shutting down mines, ostensibly to save what resources it has, and also reducing the amount of rare earth that can be exported. Last year, China produced some 130,000 tons of rare earths, but export restrictions meant that only 35,000 tons were sent to other countries. As a result, demand outside China now outstrips supply by some 40,000 tons per year, and — as expected — many countries are now stockpiling the reserves that they have.

Almost every Western country is now digging around in their backyard for rare earth-rich mud and sand, but it’ll probably be too little too late — and anyway, due to geochemistry, there’s no guarantee that explorers and assayers will find what they’re looking for. The price of rare earths are already going up, and so are the non-Chinese-made gadgets and gizmos that use them. Exacerbating the issue yet further, as technology grows more advanced, our reliance on the strange and magical properties of rare earths increases — and China, with the world’s largest workforce and a fire hose of rare earths, is perfectly poised to become the only real producer of solar power photovoltaic cells, computer chips, and more.

In short, China has the world by the short hairs, and when combined with a hotting-up cyber front, it’s not hard to see how this situation might devolve into World War III. The alternate, ecological point of view, is that we’re simply living beyond the planet’s means. Either way, strategic and logistic planning to make the most of scarce metals and minerals is now one of the most important tasks that face governments and corporations. Even if large rare earth deposits are found soon, or we start recycling our gadgets in a big way, the only real solution is to somehow lessen our reliance on a finite resource. Just like oil and energy, this will probably require drastic technological leaps. Instead of reducing the amount of tantalum used in capacitors, or indium in LCD displays, we will probably have to discover completely different ways of storing energy or displaying images. My money’s on graphene.

By Sebastian Anthony
Source: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/111029-rare-earth-crisis-innovate-or-be-crushed-by-china

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