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BOSTON, Mass. — Rare earths. Suddenly you can barely visit a website without banner headlines screaming seemingly apocalyptic allegations about rare earths.
Since late September, the Japanese have accused China of cutting off exports of rare earths. Prices worldwide are reportedly soaring. And now a 40 percent cut in China’s rare earth exports has “set off alarm bells in Germany,” according to the New York Times. The paper continued, “So great is the anxiety by the business community here that a special conference dedicated to the issue will be held next week in Berlin.”
And now it seems China will halt some of those mineral exports to the United States as well.
So what exactly are rare earths? And why should we really put down our iPhones and pay attention?
First, a brief explanatory flashback: if your high school chemistry teacher was worth her salt, you may recall that rare earths are the seventeen elements that live mainly on a row beneath the rump periodic table. In one of science’s great drawn-out dramas, 19th century chemists competed in a quest to isolate these elements. Their stubbornly similar atomic properties established some chemists’ reputations, and gave the elements the (largely erroneous) reputation for being uncommon.
Here’s why you should care: By the 21st century, rare earths had become essential to global commerce. Take a look around you. There are probably plenty of things that depend on them.
Rare earths are used in permanent magnets, which are integral to modern electronics and green technologies. They’re in iPhones, earbuds, cell phones and hard drives. Their use is not exactly new: they were in cathode tube televisions, although they are now in flat screens too. They’re in electric automobile windows, MRI machines, and compact fluorescent bulbs. A Toyota Prius contains at least two pounds of them. Each advanced wind turbine has roughly 660 pounds of the soft silvery metal neodymium.
They are also used in guided missiles and other weapons systems.
As recently as the 1990s, the world had a geographically diversified supply of rare earth minerals. China produced a lot, but the United States, Brazil, India and Russia also had active mines. However, as getting rich became increasingly glorious, the Chinese smelled an opportunity.
In 1992, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly pronounced China to be the Saudi Arabia of rare earths, reflecting the geologic fact that his country is unusually rich in them. Deng also noted that, given their importance, rare earths are wildly cheap.
Shortly after Deng's comment, China ramped up production, producing highly-pure rare earth minerals and under-cutting other countries' prices. Unable to keep up, the United States ceased mining them in the mid-2000s.
At that time, China began to close the spigot on its supply — adding tariffs and slowly tightening export quotas. As the world became increasingly dependent on rare earths, China had quietly cornered the market and created a shortage. Some analysts believe that 2010 will be the first year when global demand exceeds supply.
So can’t rare earths be mined elsewhere? Maybe, but it won’t be easy. The good news is that despite what the 19th century chemists believed, most rare earths are fairly abundant. The widely-used element cerium, for example, is more common in the earth’s crust than copper. Geologists are actively seeking new mine locations and investors are opening old ones — although by some estimates, going from discovery to production takes as much as fifteen years.
That’s largely because rare earths are exceedingly difficult and messy to isolate. The ore typically contains radioactive elements, like thorium, radium and even uranium in the case of the Chinese mine. Moreover, the ore needs to be boiled in acid literally thousands of times. This renders the waste stream dangerous — which is another reason China has excelled at producing rare earths. The massive Inner Mongolia mine, on the banks of the Yellow River, is said to be an enormous toxic wound on the earth, but environmental standards in the Middle Kingdom remain lax.
China says it needs to limit its exports precisely to protect its environment. Trade lawyers say that’s bollocks: officials aren’t limiting production, just exports. By creating scarcity, China is poised to fetch a higher price — just as Deng Xiaoping had hoped for nearly two decades earlier. Beijing also wants to lure the world’s leading electronics and clean energy companies to build production facilities in China, offering them as a carrot relatively unfettered access to the materials on the protected domestic market. This would boost China’s employment and attract new technologies that would help Beijing dominate clean technologies.
For several years, a small group of experts have been clamoring about the dangers of China’s rare earth dominance. Now, it appears their predictions have come true. The U.S. government has begun to take note. In September, the House of Representatives passed a bill promoting research and development for a domestic supply.
But the short-term solutions appear lacking. One of the most ballyhooed potential suppliers is a mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., owned by Molycorp, Inc. But the entire operation needs to be effectively rebuilt, at a cost of $500 million. At peak production, beginning in 2015 the mine is only expected to generate some 40 million pounds per year. That’s about 6 percent of the (growing) global market.
Meanwhile, multi-billion dollar swaths of the global economy are at the mercy of the Chinese. For now, manufacturers in Japan, the largest producer of permanent magnets, are relying on stockpiles of the elements, as they scramble to find new sources.
One can only hope that the German conference is a success.
David Case edits GlobalPost's research and membership programs. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport