As demand for rare earth elements heats up (they turn up in manufactured gadgets from iPads to Priuses to weaponry), so has the search to find them.
In late September 2010, China refused to export rare earth elements to Japan. It was an unannounced embargo that lasted about a month and briefly widened to include the United States and Europe. Today, somewhere between 93 and 98 percent of rare earth elements come from China, and the embargo sent an alarm through the entire high-tech manufacturing industry.
Rare earth elements, or REEs, are 17 minerals that turn up in all kinds of manufactured gadgets, from smartphones to iPads to Priuses and Chevrolet’s new electric car, the Volt, as well as in high-tech defense applications and weaponry. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that in 2010, worldwide demand for REEs measured 125,000 tonnes, but demand is expected to rise by 80 percent—to 225,000 tonnes—by 2015.
Despite its name, rare earths are not particularly rare—deposits exist in the U.S., Australia, Russia, India, and Malaysia, among other countries. Since the embargo last fall, manufacturers have become particularly anxious for an alternative supply of REEs, and suppliers are just as eager to meet the demand. As a result, China’s monopoly may start to slip.
In the U.S., the only active rare earths mining company, Molycorp, has led the charge to provide an alternative supply. The company, which has been in the rare earths business since the 1950s, went public a year ago to raise nearly $400 million so it could drastically expand production at its mine in Mountain Pass, California. While Molycorp produces only about 4,000 tonnes of REEs now, CEO Mark Smith says the company will increase production by an order of magnitude by the end of 2013. Smith also says Molycorp will produce REEs at less than half the cost of China’s current average. “Our new facility will be the most technologically advanced, energy efficient, and environmentally superior rare earth processing facility in the world. It will allow us to produce rare earth products at the lowest cost-per-kilogram of any facility.”
In addition to mining for REEs, Molycorp is exploring ways to recover REEs from used items like fluorescent lighting and CFLs, which have heavy rare earths (europium, terbium and yttrium) that are the relatively hard to find elements. Currently there are technical obstacles and federal policies that make it challenging, but “we are very optimistic that we will succeed in developing commercially viable rare earth recycling technologies,”says Molycorp public relations director Jim Sims. “We believe that the U.S. government, and other governments, also will soon see the value of recovering rare earths from various products and helping to direct those waste streams to rare earth recyclers.”
Manufacturers are also developing technology for recycling REEs. The non-renewable nature of the supply affects manufacturers in Japan the most, since the island nation’s manufacturers buy about 50 percent of China’s REEs. In response to these concerns, Hitachi has upped its efforts to recycle REEs embedded in junked hard drives and other devices. Hitachi has two subsidiary companies, Tokyo Eco Recycle and Kanto Eco Recycle, specially charged with picking up old A/C units and PCs from companies, dismantling them, and salvaging the reusable parts. The company predicts recycling will provide 10 percent of its REE supply by 2013, even though recycled REEs account for almost none of its current supply.
China lifted its REE embargo on Japan in late October, but did nothing to allay fears about the reliability of its supply. A Chinese official told China Daily that the country would reduce REE exports by as much as 30 percent in 2011. (Another official quickly denied that claim.) During the embargo itself, in early October, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao claimed that China was not, had never, and would never block exports of rare earths. However, with the increasing global demand of these commodities, other companies and countries continue to devise new ways to loosen China’s firm grip on the market.