Rare Earth Metals Future May Hinge On China

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On a single day last week shares in a Colorado-based mining company Molycorp rose dramatically by 12 percent on the stock exchange.

The sudden investment in Molycorp was surprising because it related to mining activities that had not even happened yet — the company’s $781 million expansion and modernization project at its flagship Mountain Pass rare earth facility in California will not come online until later this year.


image via Molycorp

Actually the sudden rise in share price had far less to do with Molycorp’s mining concerns than the policies of the Chinese government, and the knock-on effect those policies have on nervous investors. It was a reflection of market uncertainties concerning the Chinese government’s decision to impose quotas on the export of rare earth metals.

Rare earth metals comprise a list of 17 elements which occur naturally in mineral form in the ground. They are an essential component in renewable energy technology and currently China exports about 95 percent of the world’s supply.

Recently the Chinese monopoly on supply has led to problems. In March, the European Union, the U.S and Japan all complained to the World Trade Organization that China was illegally cutting off access to rare earth exports while holding down prices for its own manufacturers.

Mindful of the expected explosion in renewables in the coming years, this question mark over supply has got western countries seriously worried. The extent of that concern can be seen in the Molycorp share price hike.

Rare earths are the non-renewable part of renewable energy and their future availability is one of the biggest potential dark clouds threatening take-up of clean tech.

In wind power and in electric cars rare earths are essential.

A single large wind turbine, rated at about 3.5 megawatts (MW), will typically contain about 1,300 pounds of rare earth metals. Magnets in the turbine contain the rare earth element neodymium. According to research by MIT released earlier this year neodymium demand could increase by as much as 700 percent in the next quarter century.

In electric cars the dependence is even greater. A conventional car uses just over a pound of rare earth materials – mostly in small motors – but electric cars can use nearly 10 times as much in their lightweight batteries and motors.

Another rare earth, dysproprium, is a key component of the magnets in electric car engines. Magnets are necessary to make electric motors spin, and the strong and durable permanent magnets used in the cars need dysprosium to ensure performance at high temperatures.

The MIT report claimed demand for dysprosium could increase 2,600 times in the coming 25 years. Reflecting this demand, between 2010 and 2011 the price of dysprosium oxide rocketed from an average of $229 a kilo to $1,454.

The irony about rare earths is that contrary to the name they are quite an abundant resource — trace amounts can be found in almost all massive rock formations. Even though China claims that its own supplies of the metals have been over-estimated (China says it only accounts for 23 percent of global deposits, while the the rest of the world puts its share at about a third), until recently the metals were plentiful enough in the country to be used as clasps in women’s purses.

In the U.S. too rare earths, which are also needed in a wide range of consumer products such as cell phones, flat screen TVs and computers, are not that rare; the country is reckoned to have significant deposits lying dormant in the ground.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

    • The problem with extracting rare-earth minerals is that the process pollutes the surrounding environment.  There is one source of rare earth minerals that we can exploit and create millions of jobs at the same time, the Moon.  Building a moon base would allow companies to begin processing Moon rocks for rare-earths without concern for the environment offsetting the cost of production and providing opportunities for new companies in a new market.  Extracting rare-earths in California will destroy the local watersheds, negatively impact wildlife, and push the cost of polluters onto future generations.  Our short-sighted mining, drilling, and extraction regulations do not consider future clean-up costs.  We need to begin focusing on the society we want 50 years from now instead of next quarter’s profits.  Instead of a President with vision, we have a fire fighter that continually trips over himself.  We need environmental Justice in Washington because our children have rights, too.

      Support Rocky Anderson in November 2012.

    • Terry Floyd

      All REE renewable resource roads lead through Thorium TH232 and Uranium U238 fields, both are fuels for the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor LFTR, costing USA REE extractors high cost to store as radioactive toxic waste. Another big plus in the deployment of LFTR reactors. One ton of Thorium consumed in a LFTR will generate 9900 GWe hr of CO2 free electricity and yield 125 kg of stable neodymium.