The secret story of China’s new super-resource

The movie Avatar was not only a big hit in the block office but also a solemn reminder as to what would happen if human beings continue to mine resources at an unprecedented rate. In history, the Europeans once destroyed the American Red Indians over land and resources. That could and would happen again.

Yet this time around it is not the Europeans that are having the upper hand but China, the new global manufacturing workshop of the world. Most people do not know that China has a global monopoly of rare-earth production and are threatening to cut supply to the Western world. This is a move that could seriously hamper the industries that are involved in manufacturing and environmental friendly technologies.

But what are rare-earth metals and why are they important in manufacturing and green tech? Rare-earth metals were discovered in the 19th century in Sweden and they were believed to be very uncommon elements. It was only in later days that scientists discovered that we have an abundance of these elements located within the Earth’s crust. However due to the high extraction costs, only places with rich deposits of rare-earth metals are deemed feasible enough to conduct mining activities.

Rare-earth metals are prized for their high electrical conductivity. Their uses are widespread and highly important in our era of information technology. Their uses include the production of low energy light bulbs, wind turbines, hybrid cars like Toyota Prius, mobile phones, computers, Ipods, LCD screens, washing machines, digital cameras, X-ray machines, missile guiding systems, space rockets, shielding for nuclear reactors, fibre optics and earthquake monitoring equipments. Many of these items we now consider as indispensible and non-substitutable.

Yet the reality is that many people remain oblivious to the fact that China controls around 97 percent of the world’s production of rare-earth metals. The world’s largest single mine for these metals is located at Baiyun Obo, in Inner Mongolia. This mine itself is the largest single source of rare-earth metals and meets up to 77 percent of the World’s demand. In 2008 itself, China supplied 139,000 tonnes of rare-earth worldwide!

Rare-earth metals however, are not without drawbacks. The process of isolating different chemical elements from each other requires the extensive use of boiling acid and other dangerous chemicals which are highly detrimental to the environment. Miners at the Baiyun Obo mine are paid five times the amount of money compared to normal miners and they only have to work for nine months every year. But these miners face the danger of contracting cancer due to the overexposure to radioactive material. The immediate environment around the mine is also reported to be a toxic wasteland that reeks with poison and sulphur. This is the price of progress.

The implications of China’s control of rare-earth metals are very important to forecast some of the events that would happen in the near future. Economically, industries involved in the use of rare-earth metals accounts to around 5 percent of global GDP. This figure is poise to rise rapidly due to the ever-increasing use of semiconductors. The worldwide consumption is expected to reach 200,000 tonnes a year in the coming days.

China however, has cut export quotas for the past 3 years claiming that it needs its rare-earth resources for its own increasingly high-tech industrial output and is pressuring the West to mine its own rare-earth deposits. The problem is that the low-prices of these resources coming from China are making it not viable for other countries to begin extracting rare-earth. Furthermore, health and safety regulations in the West are more stringent and would also be the cause for higher extraction costs outside of China. To date, there are only two new rare-earth mining projects in the United States and Australia. Neither would be operational until 2014 and would be on a smaller scale as compared to the mine in Inner Mongolia.

China’s economic architect Deng Xiaoping once commented 20 years ago that although there is oil in the Middle East, there is rare-earth in China. Considering the importance of this new resource, Deng may be right in comparing the importance of rare-earth with oil. The future is still very uncertain in light of this revelation of China’s dominance over rare-earth metals but look to it as the source of new global conflict in the 21st century.

Below is a list of elements contained within rare-earth:

Element Symbol Details
Neodymium (Nd) Used to manufacture lasers and neodymium salts are used to colour glass.
Cerium (Ce) Used in alloys, catalysts, nuclear fuels, glass and as the core of carbon electrodes in arc lamps.
Praseodymium (Pr) Used in carbon electrodes for arc lamps and its green salts are used in coloured glasses, ceramics, and enamels.
Lanthanum (La) Used as a catalysts in cracking crude oil, in alloys, and to manufacture optical glasses.
Samarium (Sm) Used in carbon arc lamps, as a neutron absorber in nuclear reactors, and as a catalysts. Some samarium alloys are used in making powerful permanent magnets.
Promethium (Pm) Used in phosphorous paints, x-rays, nuclear-powered batteries for space vehicles.
Gadolinium (Gd) Used in neutron absorption and to manufacture certain alloys.
Dysprosium (Dy) Its capacity to absorb neutrons makes it important for nuclear technology. Its compounds are also used in lasers.
Terbium (Tb) Used in semiconductors while sodium terbium borate is used in lasers.
Erbium (Er) Used in alloys. Erbium oxide is used as a pink colorant for glass.
Europium (Eu) Used to manufacture television screens, lasers, and in control rods in nuclear reactors.
Holmium (Ho) Few commercial uses.
Thulium (Tm) Used in arc lighting and portable x-ray units.
Ytterbium (Yb) Used to produce steel, and other alloys.
Lutetium (Lu) No commercial uses.
Scandium (Sc) Used as a radioactive tracer and in nickel alkaline storage batteries.
Yttrium (Y) Used in phosphorous and communication devices such as colour television tubes and superconducting ceramics.
One Response to “The secret story of China’s new super-resource”
  1. Al Cenista says:

    Let’s see what this article establishes. REE are needed in advanced semiconductor-related applications. REE are environmentally hazardous to mine, but they can be found in many places in the earth’s crust. Outside of China, no one wants to invest and mine REEs. However, they expect China to sell them at very cheap prices.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

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