Thursday, January 28, 2010

China and the Rare Earth Crisis

by Richard Crews
There are three important facts to know about the rare earth elements

Fact one: The so-called "rare earth" elements are not rare--they are quite common throughout the Earth's crust--but they are hard to mine; they are hard to purify and separate from one another so that they can be used chemically and commercially. It takes five to eight years to bring a rare-earth mine on line.

Fact two: Over the past few years, three of the rare earths have become vitally important in modern science and industry: Praseodymium (chemical symbol, Pr) and Neodymium (Nd) for making super-magnets (like those tiny specks that will pull the refrigerator before they will come loose or, more importantly, for making superconductors and tiny electronic gadgets), and Erbium (Er) needed to make Vanadium steel for super-tough tools.

Fact three: China has a world monopoly on the mining and production of these three rare earths; it produces 95% of the world's supply. Moreover, China is expected to cut back severely on exports of rare earths over the next few years ostensibly to conserve supplies for its own growing industrial and scientific uses. And although there are fledgeling rare-earth mines outside of China--for example, in Canada and Australia--these are not expected to be fully productive for several years, and even when they are, they will not be able to replace the quantities now supplied by the Chinese.

There is truly a rare-earth crisis looming a few years ahead of us.