September 18, 2011

China's Rare Earth Monopoly

This chart of the production in metric tons of rare earth metals since the 1950s shows China's contemporary dominance of the sector, vital for a range of green energy technologies. The US mine at Mountain Pass, California, was closed in 2002 because of environmental concerns, as production of the rare earths is remarkably toxic. Due to the same concerns, China has also begun closing some of its mines, as reported by the New York Times, "China Consolidates Grip on Rare Earths."
By closing or nationalizing dozens of the producers of rare earth metals — which are used in energy-efficient bulbs and many other green-energy products — China is temporarily shutting down most of the industry and crimping the global supply of the vital resources.

China produces nearly 95 percent of the world’s rare earth materials, and it is taking the steps to improve pollution controls in a notoriously toxic mining and processing industry. But the moves also have potential international trade implications and have started yet another round of price increases for rare earths, which are vital for green-energy products including giant wind turbines, hybrid gasoline-electric cars and compact fluorescent bulbs.

General Electric, facing complaints in the United States about rising prices for its compact fluorescent bulbs, recently noted in a statement that if the rate of inflation over the last 12 months on the rare earth element europium oxide had been applied to a $2 cup of coffee, that coffee would now cost $24.55. . . .

China says it has largely shut down its rare earth industry for three months to address pollution problems. By invoking environmental concerns, China could potentially try to circumvent international trade rules that are supposed to prohibit export restrictions of vital materials.

Brad Plumer (from whom the USGS chart above is taken) reviews the history of rare earth mining,  the closure of the U.S. Mountain Pass facility in 2002, the U.S. corporation Molycorp's purchase of the mine in 2008, and the possibility that it might be reopened under safeguards that would limit the production of toxic wastewater. Plumer notes that there is some hope for a technological breakthrough that would decrease the need for rare earths in magnet technologies. In any case, he writes, this is an "underrated environmental story."
Many types of solar modules are made with rare earths. Electric cars and hybrids such as the Toyota Prius rely on powerful magnets that charge the battery and allow the motor to turn the wheels — magnets that depend on rare earths such as neodymium and terbium. A large wind turbine can use as much as a ton and a half of rare-earth magnets. Older, traditional magnets using iron alloy won’t cut it.
In other words, there's not going to be a clean-energy revolution unless we solve our rare-earth woes.

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