WTO: China rare earth trade defies rules

(Financial Times) - The EU has demanded that China loosen its policy on sales of rare earth materials after the World Trade Organisation upheld a ruling that Beijing’s policies to limit raw material exports violated international trade rules.

The case, brought in 2009 by the EU, US and Mexico, touches on one of the biggest sources of tension in the world trading system: the use of export restrictions to hoard raw materials for the use of domestic manufacturers.

The WTO’s appellate body issued its decision on Monday, endorsing a previous finding that export duties, quotas and other policies enacted by Beijing to limit the foreign sale of nine raw materials were not justified on environmental or self-sufficiency grounds.

The EU, US and Mexico argued that the higher prices their manufacturers were forced to pay for goods such as bauxite, coke and zinc put them at a disadvantage across a wide swath of industries — from steel to batteries, chemicals and ceramics.

The case highlights the global scramble to secure supplies of raw materials after huge swings in commodity prices over the past few years. It also represents an example of the US and the EU joining forces to confront China on trade matters — a strategy that both Washington and Brussels believe will help maintain leverage over the world’s second-largest economy.

The WTO case has acquired even greater importance amid Beijing’s moves to impose similar restrictions on the export of a rare earths, a category of 17 elements that are found in an array of high-tech products, including solar panels, wind turbines and mobile phones. Such goods are themselves becoming an increasingly important battleground for trade conflicts, with the US having launched a wide-ranging investigation against China’s support for its renewable energy industry. Solar power companies in America have recently sought emergency anti-subsidy tariffs against imports of Chinese solar cells.

China accounts for more than 90 per cent of global production of rare earth materials. That dominance has unnerved its trading partners — particularly since Beijing has moved repeatedly over the past four years to tighten its supplies.

The EU and the US have so far refrained from filing WTO complaints against China over rare earths, hoping that their victory in the raw materials case would convince Beijing to revise its policies.

In a statement issued shortly after the ruling, Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, urged China to take action.

“China now must comply by removing these export restrictions swiftly and furthermore, I expect China to bring its overall export regime — including for rare earths — in line with WTO rules,” Mr De Gucht said.

Ron Kirk, the US trade representative, called the ruling “a tremendous victory” that “ensures that core manufacturing industries in this country can get the materials they need to produce and compete on a level playing field”.

The Chinese mission in Geneva said expressed regret over the ruling but said that Beijing would respect the decision.

China agreed to cut export quotas and taxes when it joined the WTO in 2001.

The issue has been particularly sensitive for the EU because its manufacturers are so reliant on imported raw materials for production.

The commission estimated that the bloc’s annual imports of the materials cited in the case, which also include fluorspar, magnesium, manganese, silicon carbide, silicon metal and yellow phosphorous, exceeded €1bn.

In order to obtain such materials at competitive prices, European companies have been forced to relocate manufacturing operations to China, the commission said.

By: Joshua Chaffin and Alan Beattie

Endangered Elements: Tungsten Among China’s Potential Embargo List

It didn’t take long for the panic to set in, last year, when the Chinese government flexed its muscle by threatening the world’s Rare Earth Element (REE) supply. With 95% of REE supplies coming from China, that scare was indeed legitimate. But REEs aren’t the only elements with which China has the potential to choke off. On American Elements’ 2011 Top 5 US Endangered Elements List, three elements (tungsten, indium and neodymium) have over 50% of world supply coming from Chinese mines.

To refresh the memory of those who followed the rare earth surge from last year, and the subsequent piquing of interest in rare earth companies, it began with Japan. As the summer of 2010 was coming to a close, reports of an embargo of shipments to Japan for REEs raised concern for manufacturers who depend upon the elements for production primarily in the tech industry. Within a month, that embargo spread to North America and Europe, and concern over Chinese monopolization rose, along with REE prices, and those of the companies devoted to them. When the embargo ended, relief came to the sector, while the pace of development outside of China received only a minor increase. The threat of supply shortages still lingers, especially with tungsten, indium and neodymium.

The example of tungsten is not to be ignored, as 85% of global production comes from China, which has already indicated it might end all exports altogether due to domestic demand increases. With the highest melting point and greatest tensile strength of all elements, tungsten’s importance is unquestionable. Used in all situations that call for high temperature thresholds or hardness and strength, tungsten is imperative to many modern living standards that depend upon it. From a US perspective, the element’s use in the aerospace program, electronics and military (including in bullets and armor) is critical. To the mining industry as a whole, tungsten is a savior with many uses within the assembly of mining equipment itself, including drills in need of durability. Strangely enough, the United States dismantled domestic production of tungsten ore in 1994 with the last tungsten mine, the Pine Creek Mine in Inoyo, California, going down as a historical footnote en route to Chinese dependence.

Today, tungsten production remains primarily within China, but awareness of a need to develop outside of the PRC is becoming clearer. Options in the western hemisphere are appearing, and may soon be getting the attention they need to aid this drive for domestic independence. Juniors such as North American Tungsten [NTC - TSX.V] and Playfair Mining [PLY - TSX.V] may provide answers that mitigate a possible future supply breakdown. For North American Tungsten, the title of being the western world’s leader in tungsten production doesn’t come lightly. Through developing its Cantung Mine, it provides tungsten concentrate production within the borders of Canada’s Northwest Territories, which from an international standpoint is a much more secure mining investment environment to work within. At a much earlier stage, Playfair Mining is not yet a producer, but is heavily leveraged to the price of tungsten, which today sits around $440/MTU (“metric tonne unit”) or over $20/lb. With a goal in mind to partner with an end user of tungsten metal in order to finance its Grey River deposit into production, Playfair is well aware of the potential impact a tungsten shortage would carry.

Due to its high level of use in the manufacturing sector, a significant number of Fortune 500 companies are dependant upon tungsten’s availability. General Electric and its Tungsten Products Division, along with others like Kennametal and ATI Firth Sterling are among those that would most likely benefit from securing a long term tungsten supply, and are among potential targets should Playfair seek a high-worth partner to put its nearest term tungsten property into production. The company has 4 high-grade deposits with two located in the Yukon, one in the Northwest Territories and another on the southern coast of Newfoundland. Each of the properties was acquired strategically during a period of massively deflated tungsten prices, prior to this latest surge over the $440/MTU mark. This increase represents a 70% rise from the recent low prices that graced Playfair’s entry period. While the commodity’s price has risen, the company’s stock has yet to follow suit.

While the current price of the stock seems to have languished, the team is making strides to be better prepared for when the bigger end-users in need of tungsten come knocking. The board includes experienced individuals who have taken deals into production before, as well as Director James Robertson who took the last big tungsten company outside of China to successful acquisition. In both combined 43-101 compliant and non-compliant resource categories, Playfair’s tungsten properties contain more than an estimated 5.5 million MTUs of WO3. It’s to be expected, though, that since Playfair is an exploration company, these resources have room for expansion. As economic uncertainty lingers in all global markets, crucial and endangered elements such as REEs, tungsten, indium and neodymium will be within the watchful eye of western manufacturers in need of these ingredients for their operations. Whether another anticipated panic is inflicted by possible impending embargo actions by China doesn’t change the dependence we have on endangered elements. And like last year’s REE crisis, a price surge on those companies were set to move prior complications is entirely a likely scenario. G. Joel

- Disclaimer: The author does not currently hold any shares of any of the companies mentioned in the article. However, some members of Cordova Media Inc., which owns the, may or may not have interests in one or more of the companies mentioned at the time of publication. Staff members from the Prospecting Journal reserve the right to acquire interests in any of the companies mentioned after 36 hours have elapsed upon initial publication of this article. Playfair Mining is a sponsor of

Rare Earths and Strategic Metals: A Lateral Look at 2011

Nationalism, the search for substitutes and deals to address short supplies consumed the spotlight in 2011 for rare earth elements.

In addition to the skyrocketing of rare earth elements’ prices (and their subsequent fall to Earth), and constant speculation as to which junior rare earth exploration companies are going to survive, the calendars of both the rare earths and strategic metals have been quite full in 2011.

While some of the events filling their calendars have received often considerable coverage in the press, others have not drawn so much attention. As 2011 has come to a close, it is perhaps worth looking to see if any themes have emerged.

I have singled out three themes, not all of which have received the spotlight, but that I consider to be of interest as well as importance:

  • Resource nationalism
  • The search for substitutes
  • Deals to address dearth

Resource Nationalism

If nothing else, the intense interest in rare earths over the past several years has coincided with countries focusing on several issues, e.g., their own access to strategic minerals (and not just rare earths) and the value of the mineral resources they already own.

With the example of China aside, the focus on these has coincided with proposed and actual government policy developments among various mining nations, in the areas of resource protection as well as the further realization and “distribution” of the value of those resources.

Back in November, the lower house of the Australian parliament approved the new Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT). Aimed at further tapping the earnings of the country’s resources sector, the tax currently targets only coal and iron ore. However, only time will tell if the targets remain solely those resources.

On the other hand, events in two African countries have not received as much press. In South Africa, the future of the country’s natural resources sector (and the fate of its mining companies) is soon to be squarely in the limelight. On Jan. 30, the ANC’s national executive committee will consider just how, and how much, the state should be involved in the sector.

While what the Australians are doing appears to be attractive to some, of the 13 different country models that have been studied, it seems that Chile’s mixed private/public example in the mining sector is a favorite. On the other hand, nationalization cannot yet be fully ruled out.

For example, in Namibia, at the end of March, again in a move to try to ensure that its people share in its natural resource wealth, the country’s cabinet backed a proposal that only the state-owned mining company — Epangelo — should be issued mineral exploration and mining permits.

Unfortunately, the government’s announcement was not accompanied by an explanation as to how those foreign mining companies already on the ground were to be treated, leading to significant consternation and confusion among such companies and prospective investors in the mining sector in Namibia.

Then, in the middle of May, the country’s minister for mines and energy minister, Isak Katali, announced that the government was seeking to introduce a minerals-windfall tax. This was followed in July by the announcement of proposed Draconian taxes on the mining sector by the country’s finance minister, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila. However, so adverse was the fallout of the announcement, especially amongst investors, that on Aug. 17, the government was forced to back-pedal, with Calle Schlettwein, the deputy finance minister, announcing a scaled-down tax plan, not least in an effort to allay investors’ fears.

These are just two examples among many. In its report, Business Risks Facing Mining & Metals 2011-2012, published in August 2011, Ernst & Young reported that, over the prior 12-18 months, at least 25 countries had announced their “intentions to increase their government take of the mining industry’s profits via taxes or royalties.”

The Search For Substitutes

The search for substitutes, both for members of the rare earths elements (REE) clan and other strategic metals, continued apace this year. And it was particularly busy vis-a-vis REEs. The search, however, has not just been for effective substitutes, or reduced usage, within certain applications, but also for substitute technologies that may not necessarily include the metal(s) at all.

In the area of catalysts for oil refining, W.R. Grace & Co. started to sell equally efficient catalysts, but containing considerably less lanthanum than before. The German firm Cofermin Chemicals GmbH & Co. KG of Essen developed its product Coferpol UG, a substitute for cerium oxide used in the polishing of glass.

In the world of permanent magnet electric motors, the likes of Toyota Motor Corp. General Motors and GE are looking at using magnets with less REE content than before, or just smaller magnets. And some companies are even exploring the use of ferrite magnets as suitable substitutes.

What has also become apparent is that, in certain instances, the use of REEs has been perhaps somewhat profligate, so much so that their use now, in reduced volumes, has not made a significant difference in performance.

Earlier in 2011, as part of its policy of encouraging (and funding) renewable energy projects, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), made up to $30 million available for its REACT (Rare Earth Alternatives in Critical Technologies) project that will look at either reducing or eliminating, through the development of substitutes, a dependence on rare earth materials in both wind generators and electric vehicle motors.

In terms of substitute technologies, perhaps the most ironic has been the espousal, not least by the likes of Toyota and General Motors, of the induction motor, which does not use any rare earths metals. Such a motor is already used in the Tesla Roadster and BMW’s Mini-E.

The A/C induction motor has been around for a long time, having been patented back in 1888 by the American inventor and, some would say, eccentric Nikola Tesla. In addition to being both durable and simple, such motors have the considerable added advantage of being able to operate efficiently over a wide range of temperatures. They also comport themselves very respectably on the torque front!

Were he around to see what they are being used for now, Tesla would likely be spinning asynchronously in his grave — with amusement!

Away from the realm of REEs, other interesting areas of substitution include the increasing use of gallium nitride, as a more energy-efficient alternative, in the likes of the high-voltages switches associated with the grid. Such switches, and efficient switching, will become especially important as wind and solar energy increasingly needs to be “fed in” to the grid.

ARPA-E is also making some $30 million available for research in this area through its GENI (Green Electricity Network Integration) project and, in Europe, in November, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institute in Berlin announced the launch of the EU project HiPoSwitch, which will receive significant funding from the European community and will focus on “novel gallium nitride-based transistors” as “key switching devices” in power conversion and high-voltage environments.

Finally, also on the substitute technologies front, around the middle of November, a few quite interesting news items mentioned the use of that staple in steel production, vanadium, in a different context — electric batteries. While such batteries have been around since at least the ’80s, the technology has not yet been developed commercially with any degree of success.

With the advent of and interest in electric vehicles, this may all change. There’s still a long way to go, but vanadium batteries do offer some interesting (and, potentially, very important) advantages, not least their longevity (decades) and the fact they can be charged in a jiffy.

Deals To Address Dearth

This past year saw a number of deals, including strategic alliances, out of which various countries have secured much needed supplies of critical minerals. Among those that have either been consummated, or are still in the works, the following, going forward, will be worth remembering:

  • Three Chinese companies — Taiyuan Iron and Steel (Group) Co. Ltd., CITIC Group and Baoshan Iron and Steel Group (Baosteel) — purchased 15 percent of CBMM of Brazil, the world’s largest supplier of niobium. (China is the world’s largest consumer of niobium.)
  • Continuing negotiations between Namibia’s Epangelo and China’s CGNPC Uranium Resources Co. over a strategic ownership stake in the Husab uranium project.
  • Japan’s agreements with both India (end-October) and Vietnam (Nov. 1) to help each develop its rare earth deposits, with Japan, thereby seeking to secure supplies for itself.
  • The agreement reached in early October by Germany with Mongolia (a first such deal for the Germany government), to secure REEs at a fair price for Germany.
  • The signature by Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom of a rare earths joint venture agreement with Toshiba (end-September). (The state-owned company had already signed one with Sumitomo back in March 2010.)

On the other hand, one deal to have fallen significantly apart this year was between China and Zimbabwe over chrome. Unfortunately for Zimbabwe, it failed to beat China at its own game, the “value added” game.

Hoping to add value by having a group of seven Chinese chrome mining companies set up a smelter in the country, and despite two reprieves, the Chinese never came up with the smelter. They just continued to export the raw material before the government imposed a ban on chrome exports in April. Hauled up in front of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Energy at the end of September, it appears that representatives of the companies had the temerity to request “a grace period of five more years to mobilize resources to establish the plant through exporting the mineral.” Quite understandably, “Their request caused an uproar among members of the committee, who felt that if they were allowed to export, the chrome resources would be finished in five years before any plant was set up.”

Finally, at a corporate level, two particular deals caught my eye.

The first was the closing, on May 26, of the deal in which the Canadian company Stans Energy Corp. acquired 100 percent ownership of the Kyrgyz Chemical Metallurgical Plant (KCMP) Rare Earth Processing Complex and Private Rail Terminal. For some three decades, the plant, in Stans’ words “produced 80 percent of the former Soviet Union’s RE products.” Since May, the company has continued further to consolidate its position in Kyrgyzstan.

The second deal, about which not much was seen in the press, was the announcement of the formation in June of a 50/50 joint venture between France’s ERAMET (with a market cap at the time of around €5.8 billion and currently employing around 15,000 people in 20 countries) and Australia’s Mineral Deposits (with a market cap of considerably less and employing just 90 at the end of June) to “combine Mineral Deposit’s 90 percent interest in the Grande Cote Mineral Sands Project (“Grande Cote”) [in Senegal] and Eramet’s Tyssedal titanium slag and iron plant in Norway.” The deal was finally closed on Oct. 25.


If nothing else, during 2011 there has developed, albeit slowly, a realization that REEs alone are not the name of the game. And that countries and corporations alike need to look across the spectrum of the materials — particularly minerals — they use to determine which are critical, which are not and how to secure the relevant supply chains.

While some larger concerns — for example GE — have been doing this for some time now, as a continuing and constantly evolving process, it is something that all organizations using REEs and/or other strategic metals need to undertake. It is perhaps salutary that even now, the U.S. Department of Defense has, as far as I am aware, yet to report on REE use in its weapon and technology systems, although they were asked to do so some time ago.

Henceforth, there will be no plausible excuse of “We didn’t realize how important they were!”

By: Ton Vulcan

Critical Reading for Rare Earth Metals Investors

A quick search of media stories from the month of December, 2009 shows 24 clips including references to the 15 lanthanides and their related elements scandium and yttrium. By contrast, one day in December, 2011 produced 56 stories on the same resources. Even the tone of REE coverage has transformed over the years. Two years ago, an analyst piece from veteran metals consultant Jack Lifton titled “Underpriced Rare Earth Metals from China Have Created a Supply Crisis ” was a common headline as the world discovered that cheap supplies had left manufacturers vulnerable to a monopoly with an agenda. That supply fear made REE the investment de jour and sent almost all of the rare earth prices through the roof. In December of 2010, the headlines in big outlets like The Motley Fool announced that the “Spot Price of Rare Earth Elements Soar as much as 750% since Jan. 2010.”

Reality soon set in as investors realized that this was not a simple supply and demand industry. First, demand was still vague, subject to change and very specific about the type and purity of the product being delivered. Second, the ramp-up period for companies exploring, getting approval for development, mining, processing efficiently and delivering to an end-user was very, very long. Some became discouraged. That is why this year, the consumer finance site, The Daily Markets ran an article with the headline: “Why You Shouldn’t Give Up on the Rare Earth Element Minerals” by Gold Stock Trades Newsletter Writer Jeb Handwerger.

Through it all, Streetwise Reports has focused on cutting through the hype to explain what is really driving demand, how the economy and geopolitics shape supplies going forward and which few of the hundreds of companies adding REE to their company descriptions actually had a chance of making a profit.

Back in June of 2009, in an interview titled “The Race to Rare Earths,” we ran an interview with Kaiser Research Online Editor John Kaiser that concluded “China’s export-based economy, once dependent on American greed, is now but a fading memory. While the U.S. was busy printing and preening, the Chinese were long-range planning. But America wasn’t the only country caught off guard by China’s strategic, if surreptitious, supply procurement.” Even while other analysts were panicking, Kaiser was pointing out how investors could be part of the solution–and make a profit in the process.

“For the juniors, the opportunity right now is to source these projects. They get title to them, and when these end users want to develop them, they’re going to have to pay a premium to have these projects developed,” Kaiser said. “So it will not be economic logic that results in these companies getting bought out and having their deposits developed. It’ll be a strategic logic linked to long-term security-of-supply and redundancy concerns. And we’re seeing that sort of psychology at work in this market. It’s a bit of a niche in this market. Not as big as gold, but it is an interesting one because of the long-term real economy link implications.”

After years of covering the space by interviewing the growing chorus of analysts and newsletter writers singing the praises of rare earth elements, in June of 2011, we launched The Critical Metals Report to give exclusive coverage to the entire space, including rare earth elements, strategic metals and specialty metals. One of the first experts interviewed was Emerging Trends Report Managing Editor Richard Karn in an article called “50 Specialty Metals under Supply Threat.” He warned that investing in the space is not as simple as some other mining operations. “The market is just starting to become aware of the difficulty involved with processing these metals, which, in many cases, more closely resemble sophisticated industrial chemistry than traditional onsite brute processing. Putting flow sheets together that process these metals and elements economically is no mean feat.”

In this early article, Karn busted the myth that manufacturers would find substitutions, engineer out or use recycled supplies for hard-to-access materials. “The advances we have seen especially in consumer electronics over the last decade and a half have not been driven by lone inventors or college kids tinkering in their parents’ garages, but rather by very large, well-equipped and well-staffed research arms of powerful corporations. The stakes are high and if a certain metal is critical in an application, they will buy it regardless of the price,” he said.

Similarly, a July 2011 article for The Critical Metals Report featured Energy and Scarcity Editor Byron King sharing “The Real REE Demand Opportunity” driven by the automobile industry and beyond. He was one of the first to point out that not all rare earths are the same with Heavy Rare Earth Elements demanding big premiums.

“Going forward, the serious money will be in HREEs, which have a lot of uses other than EVs,” King said. “For example, yttrium is used in high-temperature refractory products. There’s no substitute for yttrium. Without it, you can’t make the refractory molds needed to make jet-engine turbine blades. If you can’t make jet-engine turbine blades, you don’t have jet engines or power turbines. The price points for these HREEs will reflect true scarcity and unalterable demand. People will bite the bullet and pay what they have to in order to get the yttrium.”

House Mountain Partners Founder Chris Berry also addressed the impact of electric vehicle demand on vanadium, a popular steel alloy strengthener now being used in lithium-ion batteries in the interview “Can Electric Vehicles Drive Vanadium Demand? “

“The use of vanadium in LIBs for EVs is not significant yet, but could eventually become important as the transportation sector electrifies. One of the real challenges surrounding LIBs is settling on the most effective battery chemistry. In other words, what battery chemistry allows for the greatest number of charge recycles, depletes its charge the slowest and allows us to recharge the fastest? Today, based on my research, lithium-vanadium-phosphate batteries appear to offer the highest charge and the fastest recharge cycle. It seems that the lithium-vanadium-phosphate battery holds a great deal of promise, offering a blend of substantial power and reliability. I am watching for advances in battery chemistry here with great interest,” Berry said.

In September, Technology Metals Research Founding Principal Jack Lifton shared his insights on why some junior REE companies are prospering while others wither and die. In the article, “Profit from Really Critical Rare Earth Elements,” he said: “Rare earth junior miners are now being culled by their inability to raise enough capital to carry their projects forward to a place where either the product produced directly or the value to be gained from the company’s development to that point by a buyer can be more profitable than a less risky investment. The majority of the rare earth junior miners do not understand the supply chain through which the critical rare earth metals become industrial or consumer products. Additionally, they do not seem to recognize the value chain issue, which can be stated as ‘How far downstream in the supply chain do I need to take my rare earths in order to be able to sell them at a profit?’”

Then Lifton made this important point for Critical Metals Report readers. “It is very important for the small investor to understand that the share market does not directly benefit the listed company unless the company either sells more of its ownership or pledges future production for present, almost always sharply discounted, revenue.” As always, Lifton encouraged investors to follow the money to a specific end rather than the general market demand often envisioned by investors accustomed to the more defined gold market.

In October, JF Zhang Associates’ Principal Consultant and Chief China Strategist J. Peter Zhang shared his insights on “U.S. Manganese Supply as a Strategic Necessity.”

Manganese is now largely used largely in the production of low quality stainless steel, but is being incorporated into lithium-ion batteries. That increased demand is focusing attention on the limited supply outside China. “There really is no electrolytic manganese metals production in the U.S. or anywhere outside China except for a small percentage from South Africa. We don’t produce even a single ounce in North America. Relying on other countries to supply essential commodities (like oil for instance) is always a problem. If China suddenly decided to reduce production, or in the likely event that its domestic demand increases, the world would be out of options. Policymakers need to understand this risk and Congress needs to take action to minimize the potential impacts,” he said. “From the end of 2008 to 2009, China tied things up. Since then, the price has doubled, tripled and quadrupled. That should be a wakeup call. North America needs to either establish a strategic reserve system for critical metals or build production capacity to mitigate supply risk. I think there is some sense of urgency right now, but a lot more needs to be done.”

Picking the right junior is the trick. In the November article “Navigating the Rare Earth Metals Landscape” Technology Metals Research Founding Principal Gareth Hatch outlined the odds. “TMR is tracking well over 390 different rare earth projects at present; I can’t see more than 8-10 coming onstream in the next 5-7 years. Projects already well past exploration and into the development and engineering stage, and beyond, clearly have first-mover advantage.”

Just this month, in an interview entitled, “The Age of Rare Earth Metals” Jacob Securities Analyst Luisa Moreno compared the impact REEs will have on our daily lives with the transformation in the Bronze Age.

“There is an economic war over the rare earths, with China on one side and other industrialized nations on the other—Japan, the United States and the E.U. China is probably winning. It has decreased exports in the last few years and increased protection. It has attracted a great deal of the downstream business and it is positioning itself well. At this point, it produces most of the world’s rare earths, and prices are at record highs. Japan and the other countries have been left with few options, and those options are more expensive, such as substitution, recycling and adapting production lines to use less efficient materials.” Moreno then pointed to the seven companies that could come to the world’s rescue and usher in a miraculous new world of smaller, stronger, more powerful gadgets based on a steady supply of REE materials from reliable sources.

By: The Gold Report

Lowman: Reliant on rare earth

Toyota Prius

Science … tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation … and everything science has taught me … strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death. Nothing disappears without a trace.

— Werner von Braun

What do Yttrium, Promethium, Europium and Luterium have in common? Although they may sound like a foreign language, these rare earth elements comprise the backbone of new technologies for the 21st century. Seventeen chemical elements, also called rare earths, are appended to the existing periodic table of elements, and their relatively new discoveries have advanced the electronics industry. Yttrium, when alloyed with other elements, forms part of aircraft engines; Promethium is an essential component of long-lived nuclear batteries; Europium powers images in flat-screen televisions; and Luterium detects radiation in PET scanners (positron emission tomography) used for medical research. Many new technologies — hybrid cars, televisions, cellphones, computer hard drives, camera lenses, and self-cleaning ovens — owe their success to rare earth elements.

The Prius alone contains rare earth elements for its LCD screens, electric motor and generator, headlight glass, catalytic converter, UV windows and mirrors; other cars require similar components to provide competitive features for buyers. The magnets under the hood of a Prius are some of the most powerful on the planet. Different from older technologies, they use rare earth elements to charge the battery and turn the wheels.

Without rare earth elements, your iPod earbuds would still be large, old-fashioned and unwieldy headphones.

As the world’s technologies become increasingly dependent on rare earth metals, their reserves become more valuable. Half the world’s rare earth deposits are in China, which mines almost 100 percent of global supply. Because China recognizes its own increasing needs for new technologies, the country recently reduced rare earth element export quotas by almost 40 percent in 2010.

So what will other countries do to remain competitive in the high-technology market? The answer: Train the emerging generation in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — to develop new technologies.

In North Carolina, hubs like Research Triangle Park and Raleigh’s new Nature Research Center are ideal incubators for the next generation of scientists and engineers. Researchers are working around the clock to design products that do not require rare earth elements. At Ames Laboratory in Iowa, scientists are trying to create magnets devoid of any rare earth metals. General Electric is applying nanotechnology to wind turbines as part of its clean-energy portfolio. Nanocomposite magnets will reduce the need for two rare earth metals: neodymium and dysprosium, which function to line up the magnetic field in wind turbines or hybrid cars.

Another strategy for minimizing the reliance on China’s rare earth deposits is to locate reserves closer to home. On California’s Mojave Desert, several rare earth mining operations are reopening. Another option involves improved recycling of cellphones and other products that contain rare earth elements.

The most economical solution is to reduce our reliance on rare earth elements altogether. Toyota is scrambling to develop technologies that do not require magnets utilizing rare earth elements in hybrid cars, and the television industry hopes to someday eliminate the need for Europium and Terbium in its screen imagery.

Training the next generation of scientists and engineers to inspire creative solutions is critical; otherwise, iPods, PET scans and plasma televisions may become increasingly limited in their production. After all, where will America be without scandium, a rare earth element alloyed with aluminum in baseball bats?

By: Meg Lowman

Meg Lowman, longtime Florida scientist/educator, is establishing the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, with a mission to engage the public. Her column appears monthly on these pages.

Rare Earth Elements are not the same as Rare Industrial Metals

Randy Hilarski has also released a video on this article that can be watched by clicking here.

I read articles from other writers who often refer to Rare Industrial or Technical Metals as Rare Earth elements. I would like to take some time and clear up the issue. I deal with RIM’s and REE´s on a daily basis. The two might both be considered metals but that is where the similarities end.

First we have REE´s or Rare Earth Elements. These metals consist of 17 metals, the Lanthanides plus Scandium and Yttrium on the periodic table of the elements. These metals are in a powder form, making them difficult to assay and store. One important factor that is often mentioned is that they are not rare. This is very true, but finding REE´s in large deposits is difficult.

In the mining sector REE mines are standalone mines, that focus on the mining and refining of REE´s exclusively. Currently around 97% of all REE´s are mined and refined in China. Historically REE mining and refining has been a dirty business, which has affected the environment around the mines. The elements Thorium and Uranium are often found along with the REE´s in the deposits causing the slurry to be slightly radioactive when processed. The use of highly toxic acids during the processing can also have serious environmental impact. Many companies are trying to open REE mines but they are meeting headwinds, as nations and people do not want these mines in their backyard.

Over the last few years China has dramatically cut its export of REE´s. This and the increased need for REE´s have caused a meteoric rise in the value of these metals. The one area that very few people talk about is the role of the media combined with speculators in raising the value of REE ETF´s in particular. For the last couple years REE´s were the rock stars of the metals. The news has calmed as of late, but the supply and demand factors that caused the metals to soar are still in place. Recently China closed it BaoTao mine until REE prices stabilize.

Rare Industrial Metals, RIM´s or Technical metals are another group entirely. The RIM´s are made up of metals used in over 80% of all products we use on a daily basis. Without these metals you would not have the world of the 21st century with our mobile phones, hybrid cars, flat screen TV´s, highly efficient solar energy and computers. Some of these metals include Indium, Tellurium, Gallium, Tantalum and Hafnium. These metals really are rare compared to the Rare Earth Metals which causes a great deal of confusion. These metals are in a metallic form, stable and easy to store and ship.

RIM´s are mined as a by-product of base or common metal mining. For example Tellurium is a by-product of Copper mining and Gallium is a by-product of Aluminum and Zinc mining. The mining of the RIM´s currently are for the most part at the mercy of the markets for the base or common metal mining. If the Copper mines of the world decide to cut production due to Copper losing value, this will have a huge impact on the amount of Tellurium that can be refined. Up until now, because of the previous small size of the RIM market, many companies do not feel the need to invest money into better technology to mine and refine these metals. The RIM´s would have to be valued much higher to gain the attention of the mining industry.

When China cut exports of REE´s they also cut exports of RIM´s. This put pressure on the value of these metals. RIM´s have increased in value, but nowhere near the meteoric rise of the REE´s. Most of the metals increased in value around 47% in 2010 and 25% so far in 2011. There is still a lot of room for growth in the value of these metals (not based on speculation like REE´s) as demand is exceeding supply now and in the future.

For Example, when REE´s and the stock market recently fell sharply the RIM´s came down slightly in value but have held their own extremely well. On a further note, according to Knut Andersen of Swiss Metal Assets, ¨Even though prices of the Rare Industrial Metals continue to go up in value, consumers will eventually only see a very small increase in the price of the end products, because there is so little of each metal used to produce these products. Also if the people can´t afford a smartphone they will still buy less expensive phones that still use the same Rare Industrial Metals¨.

The need for RIM´s has risen sharply over the years and will continue to grow at astronomical rates. China, India, South America and the whole of Africa with hundreds of millions of new consumers are now buying and using computers and mobile phones to name just a few products.

The future is bright for the technologies and the Rare Industrial Metals that make them work and for anyone who participates in stockpiling these metals now to meet future increased demand.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Earth’s rarest metals ranked in a new ‘risk list’

The relative risks to the supply of some of Earth’s rarest elements have been detailed in a new list published by the British Geological Survey (BGS).

So-called “technology metals” like indium and niobium are extracted from the Earth and are used in a wide range of modern digital devices and green technologies.

They are therefore increasingly in demand from global industries.

The list highlights 52 elements most at risk from “supply disruption”.

Incorporating information about each metal’s abundance in the Earth, the distribution of its deposits, and the political stability of the country in which it is found, the list ranks these highly desired elements on a relative scale.

Speaking at the British Science Festival in Bradford, Andrew Bloodworth from the BGS explained that “while we won’t run out of these metals any time soon, the risks to supply are mostly human”.

Geopolitics, resource nationalism, accidents, and the lengthy delay between the discovery of a resource and its efficient extraction are all factors that could threaten the supply of the metals on which our modern technology has come to rely.

 This is an especially important factor, given the notable monopoly that certain countries have on supply.

For example, 97% of all rare earth elements (REEs), including neodynium and scandium, are produced in China.

 Pace of demand

Antimony, the element most “at risk”, is used extensively for fire proofing, but is deposited by hot fluids inside the Earth’s crust and extracted mostly in China.

In fact, China dominates global production of all the elements on the BGS list, being responsible for extraction of over 50% of them.

Mr Bloodworth said that he hoped this new list would help to inform policy makers of the need to diversify supply sources, as well as making manufacturers and the public aware of where these critical metals come from.

There are many more locations on Earth where these critical metals can be mined, including varied geological deposits from Southern Africa, Australia, Brazil, and the US. Professor Frances Wall of the Camborne School of Mines said that mining these alternative deposits would “take away the monopoly of current suppliers of these metals”.

In the move towards a more low-carbon economy, digital and renewable energy technologies rely heavily on metals which, just 10 years ago, would have been of little interest to industry.

Today, these elements are ubiquitous, being used widely in smart mobile devices, flat screens, wind turbines, electric cars, rechargeable batteries and many others.

Mobile phones embrace the use of these technology metals, with lithium batteries, indium in the screen, and REEs in the circuitry.

With over 50 million new phones being made every year, the “volume of technology metals required is astonishing and the pace of demand is not letting up” said Alan McLelland of the National Metals Technology Centre.

Recycling of the metals used in phones is currently too expensive and energy-intensive, but Mr McLelland hopes that the risks outlined in the BGS list will alert the manufacturers to the need to make the embedded metals more accessible for recycling.

 As the supply and demand of the elements change, the BGS anticipates the list being updated annually.

By Leila Battison

The Rare Industrial Metals and the World

Neodymium Magnets

Over the last year the markets have been up and down.  One sector of metals has been rising steadily for years.  This is the Rare Industrial Metals and Rare Earth sector.  One way or another everyone on the planet is dependent on these metals.  Imagine a world without them; no cell phones, no iPads, no LCD’s, no lasers, no jet aircraft, no electric vehicles, no alternative energies and no nuclear energy.  National Geographic calls the rare earth complex of elements, ¨The Secret Ingredient of Almost Everything¨.

Something is happening under the radar that is having a huge impact on the price of many of the metals.  China has a 90% control of all Rare Industrial Metals.  China has decided to cut its exports of metals like tungsten, cobalt, indium, tellurium, tantalum and gallium.  The Chinese believe that if they make the prices of these metals out of reach for European, Japanese and American industry the industries will have to bring their jobs to China.  For example, this is already having an effect on the magnets industry.  These magnets are critical for electric vehicles, wind power and many other applications.  The USA, UK, EU, Japan and South Korea have all put the elements needed for the magnet industry and many others on their critical lists.

Over the last year, China has had a slash fest.  In 2010 they cut a whopping 72% of their RIM export quotas for the last part of the year.  In December, they again whittled 35% off the quota for the first half of this year and are talking about another 30% for the fall of 2011.   Some speculate that the country will completely shut out the world by 2014 in order to secure their own demand and manufacturing dominance.

Obviously this is creating somewhat of an international crisis.  Nations with technology backbones are currently taking heed and hedging themselves with alternative suppliers – and they are limited.

In the US, politicians are getting involved pointing out how critical RIMs / Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are to National security.  Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) is proposing the RESTART Act of 2011 which essentially admits the US dropped the ball while depending on China to supply these vital resources.  The act proposes to jumpstart a RIM/REE supply chain in the US over the course of five years.

There is no doubt other producers will pop onto the scene due to rising values.  Many organizations are now making efforts to explore and exploit in light of recent economically feasible price ranges.  Despite their efforts however, there are no indications the supply will outweigh demand in the short, medium or long term.  With the exploding technology sectors and a push for clean energy, industry simply won’t let it happen.

What’s interesting is that RIMs are very inelastic.  Their economic presence is so small in the supply chain that they barely affect end users.  Take for instance indium, critical to flat panel TV’s, smart phones and solar CIGS (copper, indium, gallium selenide) solar cells.  In 2003, the metals’ price was pegged at $60/Kg.  Today, in a world with an average annual output over 1.2 billion smart phones and 200 million flat screens, Indium hovers around $800/kg in China before exorbitant export taxes and other duties, which in turn increases the price by 100% or more for the Western world. Despite this increase the public hasn’t felt a significant blow.  In fact, many of these gadgets are getting cheaper.

As we eventually see more of an abundant supply in years to come, it will likely be allocated immediately.  With emerging powerhouses like India and China growing at alarming rates, technology and clean energy advancing into the 21st century, it’s difficult to conceive how new sources will keep up.  Nations will do their best to bring mines online to produce these critical rare industrial metals, the problem is that in the west these processes take years.  The technology is there to produce metals much cleaner than in the past.  Nations have a choice to make, either mine and have jobs in your jurisdiction or let China do the mining and have all the industrial production jobs.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

China’s Rare Earths Monopoly - Peril or Opportunity?

September 30, 2011 (Source: Market Oracle) — The prosperity of China’s “authoritarian capitalism” is increasingly rewriting the ground-rules worldwide on the capitalist principles that have dominated the West’s economy for nearly two centuries.

Nowhere is this shadow war more between the two systems more pronounced than in the global arena of production of rare earths elements (REEs), where China currently holds a de facto monopoly, raising concerns from Washington through London to Tokyo about what China might do with its hand across the throat of high-end western technology.

In the capitalist West, as so convincingly dissected by Karl Marx, such a commanding position is a supreme and unique opportunity to squeeze the markets to maximize profits.

Except China apparently has a different agenda, poking yet another hole in Marx’s ironclad dictums about capitalism and monopolies, further refined by Lenin’s screeds after his Bolsheviks inadvertently acceded to power in 1917 in the debacle of Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War One. Far from squeezing its degenerate capitalist customers for maximum profit (and it’s relevant here to call Lenin’s dictum that if you want to hang a capitalist, he’ll sell you the rope to do it), Beijing has apparently adopted a “soft landing” approach on rare earths production, gradually constricting supplies whilst inveigling Western (and particularly Japanese) high tech companies to relocate production lines to China to ensure continued access to the essential commodities.

REEs are found in everyday products, from laptops to iPods to flat screen televisions and hybrid cars, which use more than 20 pounds of REEs per car. Other RRE uses include phosphors in television displays, PDAs, lasers, green engine technology, fiber optics, magnets, catalytic converters, fluorescent lamps, rechargeable batteries, magnetic refrigeration, wind turbines, and, of most interest to the Pentagon, strategic military weaponry, including cruise missiles.

Technology transfer is the essential overlooked component in China’s economic rise, and Beijing played Western greed on the subject like a Stradivarius, promising future access to China’s massive market in return, an opium dream that rarely occurred for most companies. You want unimpeded access to Chinese RREs? Fine – relocate a portion on your production lines here, or…

Which brings us back to today’s topic.

Rare earths and investment – where to go?

China is riding a profitable wave, which depending on what figures you read, produces 95-97 percent of current global supply, and unprocessed raw earth earths ores are currently going for more than $100,000 a ton, or $50 a pound, which some of the exotica fetching far more (niobium prices has increase an astounding 1,000 percent over the last year). Rare earth elements like dysprosium, terbium and europium come mainly from southern China.

According to a United States Energy Department report, dysprosium, crucial for clean energy products rose to $132 a pound in 2010 from $6.50 a pound in 2003.

The soaring prices however have also invigorated many countries and producers to begin looking in their own back yards, for both new deposits and former mining sites that were shuttered when production cost made them uneconomic before prices went through the ceiling.

However, a number of unknown factors play into developing alternative sources to current Chinese RRE production. These include first prospecting possible sites, secondly, their purity and third, initial production costs, where modest Chinese labor costs are a clear factor.

The 17 RRE elements on the Periodic Table are actually not rare, with the two least abundant of the group 200 times more abundant than gold. They are, however, hard to find in large enough concentrations to support costs of extraction, and are frequently found in conjunction with radioactive thorium, leading to significant waste problems.

At hearings last week before U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Molycorp, Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Mark A. Smith stated that his company was positioned to fulfill American rare earth needs, currently estimated at 15,000-18,000 tons per year, by the end of 2012 if it can ramp up production at its Mountain Pass, California facility.

Which brings us back to foreign producers. A year ago Molycorp announced that it was reopening its former RRE mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., which years ago used to be the world’s main mine for rare earth elements, filing with the SEC for an initial public offering to help raise the nearly $500 million needed to reopen and expand the mine. Low prices caused by Chinese competition caused the Mountain Pass mine to be shuttered in 2002.

Mountain Pass was discovered in 1949 by uranium prospectors who noticed radioactivity and its output dominated rare earth element production through the 1980s; Mountain Pass Europium made the world’s first color televisions possible.

Molycorp plans to increase its capacity to mine and refine neodymium for rare earth magnets, which are extremely lightweight and are used in many high-tech applications and intends to resume production of lower-value rare earth elements like cerium, used in industrial processes like polishing glass and water filtration.

In one of those historic economic ironies, China was able to increase its RRE production in the 1980s by initially hiring American advisers who formerly worked at Mountain Pass.

The record-high REE prices are also underwriting exploration activities worldwide by more than six dozen other companies in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia and Central Asia to open new RRE mines, but with each start-up typically raising $10 million to $30 million, not all will succeed. That said, the future is bright, as almost two-thirds of the world’s supply of REEs exists outside of China and accordingly, China’s current monopoly of REE production will not last.

So where do investors look to cash in on the RRE boom?

First, do your homework.

Exhibit A is Moylcorp, which would seem to be in unassailable position as regards U.S. production, but which nevertheless on 20 September after JPMorgan Chase & Co. lowered its rating of the company, citing declines in rare-earth prices, causing its stock to plummet 22 percent in New York Stock Exchange composite trading, despite being the best-performing U.S. IPO in 2010 after beginning trading in July, more than tripling after rare-earth prices soared as China cut export quotas.

Is there money to be made in RREs?

Undoubtedly – but the homework for the canny investor needs to extend beyond spreadsheets to geopolitics, mining lore, chemistry and Wall Street puffery. That said, it seems likely that whatever U.S.-based company can cover the Pentagon’s RRE requirements is likely to see more than a minor boost in its bottom line.

Gentlemen, place your bets – but do your homework first.

Is Someone Manipulating The Story About Rare Earths Under The Pacific Ocean?

There were a number of reports over the weekend, about a group of Japanese researchers who say that they have found significant quantities of rare-earth elements (REEs) at multiple sites on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean. In a paper published in Nature Geoscience on July 3, 2011, lead author Yasushiro Kato and his colleagues shared the extensive work that was undertaken, to obtain and to analyze 2,037 samples from 78 different sites across the Pacific Ocean.

Reuters, the BBC, Nikkei and others reported that there is an estimated 100 billion tonnes of rare earths in these deposits. Which is rather interesting, because the scientists themselves made no such claim in their paper.

What they do report, are two regions of the sea bed with so-called REE-rich muds:

  • one in the eastern South Pacific containing 0.1-0.22% total REEs (including 0.02-0.04% heavy REEs), in layers 10 to 40 meters thick;
  • one in the central North Pacific, containing 0.04-0.1% total REEs (including 0.007-0.02% heavy REEs), in layers 30 to greater than 70 meters thick.

The authors compare these muds to the ion-absorption-type clays found in China, which are presently the world’€™s primary source of heavy REEs. They comment that the mud in the eastern South Pacific has heavy REE content that is €œnearly twice as abundant as in the Chinese deposits€œ. Of course, those Chinese deposits are not sitting under €œgreat water depths (mostly 4,000-5,000 meters)€ and below the surface of the sea floor. It is because they are readily accessible and processable, that the Chinese ion-absorption deposits are exploited, despite their very low concentrations of REEs (heavy or otherwise).

Doing a couple of rough calculations, the authors estimate that a 10 meter-thick bed of mud in the eastern South Pacific, with an area of 1 square kilometer, could yield approximately 9,000 tonnes of rare earths. They also estimate that a 70 meter-thick bed of mud in the central North Pacific, with an area of 1 square kilometer, could yield approximately 25,000 tonnes of rare earths. These numbers are not too shabby (if we again forget about the 2.5-3 miles of water sat above them, and their remote location from any significant land masses). As I’€™ve said elsewhere, I can’€™t see these deposits ever being commercially exploited, but the empirical work done by the Japanese researchers which is presented in this paper, is impressive.

What the authors do NOT estimate, is a size of the total mineral resource, and wisely so. While they mention that the thick distributions of mud at numerous sites might mean that the REEs on the sea floor could exceed the world’€™s current land reserves of [110 million tonnes], they acknowledge the considerable challenges and significant variability present on the seafloor, and thus state that “resource estimates for large regions cannot be made until more detailed data are available for areas lacking cores.

Perhaps the lead author later just threw out a wild-ass, ridiculous guess at the size of the deposits, in response to a reporter’€™s question. But if he did not, and if the scientists themselves are not making the claim that there are €œan estimated 100 billion tonnes of rare-earth deposits, as reported by Reuters, Nikkei, and the BBC€“ just who IS making this claim? Who has inserted these comments into this story, and fed them to the mainstream media, and why might they have done that? Can we find clues in the current pricing turmoil, worries about supply from China, and the increasing politicization of the rare-earths story?

I leave those questions as an exercise for the reader to ponder!

Gareth Hatch on July 4, 2011