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Getting Rare Earth Ready

[ Posted Monday, March 19th, 2012 – 16:16 PDT ]

When those of a certain age hear the term "rare earth," what immediately springs to mind is a 1970s band of the same name, whose biggest hit was a song called "Get Ready." The song was catchy, but the lyrics ("Well tweedley-dee and tweedley-dum/Look out baby, 'cause here I come") weren't exactly profound. The chorus repeated the "Get ready, 'cause here I come" phrase quite a few times. But it had a solid beat, and you could dance to it... as they said back then.

An entirely different kind of rare earth is in the news these days: the kind that actually comes out of the ground. A whole group of elements (which aren't actually all that rare) are classified as "rare earth" minerals. Their importance in the modern world is growing by leaps and bounds, because they are a key component of most high-tech devices (such as cell phones, computers, and electric car batteries). Even more critically, they are a key component of high-tech military hardware such as night-vision goggles, guided missiles, and Aegis warships.

Last week, President Obama mentioned the subject in a briefing:

This morning, we're taking an additional step forward. We're bringing a new trade case against China -- and we're being joined by Japan and some of our European allies. This case involves something called rare earth materials, which are used by American manufacturers to make high-tech products like advanced batteries that power everything from hybrid cars to cell phones.

We want our companies building those products right here in America. But to do that, American manufacturers need to have access to rare earth materials -- which China supplies. Now, if China would simply let the market work on its own, we'd have no objections. But their policies currently are preventing that from happening. And they go against the very rules that China agreed to follow.

Being able to manufacture advanced batteries and hybrid cars in America is too important for us to stand by and do nothing. We've got to take control of our energy future, and we can't let that energy industry take root in some other country because they were allowed to break the rules. So our administration will bring this case against China today, and we will keep working every single day to give American workers and American businesses a fair shot in the global economy.

We're going to make sure that this isn't a country that's just known for what we consume. America needs to get back to doing what it's always done best -- a country that builds and sells products all over the world that are stamped with the proud words: "Made in America." That's how we create good, middle-class jobs at home, and that's how we're going to create an economy that's built to last.

This isn't your usual trade complaint to the W.T.O., because at the moment China produces over 95 percent of the world's rare earth minerals. And they're showing more and more reluctance to sell any of it on the world market. Their reason is they want to use the rare earths "internally," by which they mean grabbing more market share for the refined products rather than the raw ore. The U.S. and Europe want a free-market approach. But it's tough to argue with a monopoly. When you control all but three or four percent of a worldwide commodity, the market pretty much has to dance to your tune.

But most of the news reports on this growing trade war (as well as President Obama, the other day) don't mention a crucial fact: this monopoly may not be around for very much longer.

I first wrote about this, optimistically, about a year and a half ago. Back then, a mining company was making plans to reopen a mine in Mountain Pass, California. One mine may not sound like such a big deal, but it is. Back then, I pointed out:

And although it's hard to believe when you see the place today, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine was the world's largest supplier of rare earth elements, from the 1960s to the 1980s. You can see, by looking at a chart of worldwide rare earth production, that they even named the "era" for the Mountain Pass mine. At one point, Mountain Pass was producing 70 percent of the world's supply of rare earths.

. . .

I don't want to sound too alarmist over the situation, though. China didn't rise to worldwide dominance in rare earths by nefarious design, but rather because they got lucky, in a way. They were already mining iron ore at a mine called Bayan Obo, and discovered that the byproducts of this mining were rich in rare earths. This made it a lot cheaper for them to produce the elements than anyone else in the world.

. . .

But China's not blameless in this situation, either. They have shown not only a willingness to cut back dramatically on the rare earth ore they supply to the world, but also a recent willingness to cut it off entirely, when they feel like it. Japan just found this out. Japan and China were in an international disagreement about an incident which happened out at sea, and the Japanese government was holding a Chinese fishing ship captain in custody as a result. And -- completely coincidentally, as China tells it -- all shipments of rare earths to Japan from China ceased. Japan buckled, and sent the captain home to China. During this period (this all happened in the past three months), rare earth shipments to America were also briefly interrupted.

Unless this whole incident was complete coincidence (as the Chinese government insists), it shows China's willingness to use the supply of a valuable commodity on the world market for its own diplomatic and geopolitical goals.

The reason I wrote the article in November of 2010 (when I should have been talking about Veterans' Day) was that the mining company Molycorp had announced they were going to reopen the mine, use much "greener" processing (to avoid problems like radioactive mine tailings), and provide rare earths, they claimed, "at half the cost of the Chinese in 2012."

Since the subject is in the news again, and since it is now 2012, let's see what progress they've made. Coincidentally, three weeks ago the company issued a press release which (in part) says:

Molycorp, Inc. today announced that the sequential start-up of the new Project Phoenix rare earth manufacturing facility at its flagship Mountain Pass, California operation will begin this week and includes the following operations and plants:

Active mining at a full mine production rate of approximately 2,800 short tons of fresh rare earth ore per day has been underway for several weeks.

Mechanical completion of the new Crushing Facility has been achieved and fresh ore is now being fed into the system.

Mechanical completion of the initial Cracking Facility has been achieved, steam testing has been completed, and feedstock from stockpiled material has been fed into the system.

Other operations in the Project Phoenix facility that will be brought online over the coming months include the following: milling and mineral extraction; expanded cracking; impurities removal; rare earth oxide separations; product finishing; and paste tailings processing and storage.

"The launch of Project Phoenix's sequential start-up is occurring well ahead of our April 1 deadline, and represents the accomplishment of a critical milestone in our project," said Mark A. Smith, Molycorp President and Chief Executive Officer. "When this new manufacturing facility is complete and running at full capacity, it will be the most technologically advanced, energy efficient, and environmentally superior rare earth facility in the world."

That's the good news. Even better is the news that they're ahead of their own schedule, and now claim they'll put out close to 2,000 metric tons of rare earth oxide not by the end of this year, but by the end of the third quarter.

Which isn't all that far away. So the trade war on rare earth minerals with China may never become the threat that it previously could have presented to America's economic and military security.

Someone should tell the White House. That's the sort of thing that would sound good in a presidential briefing. We're not there yet, in terms of supplying our own production of the rare earths we need -- but we're getting closer. Get ready, get ready.

-- Chris Weigant

 

Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

 

18 Comments on “Getting Rare Earth Ready”

  1. [1] 
    Kevin wrote:

    Feeling quite musical lately, are you? I wouldn't mind at all if you kept things in this spirit as often as you can make it appropriate. And thanks again for another informative piece :D

  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    The rare-earth elements are not all that rare. Rare "earths" are the minerals that are economical ores of rare-earth elements. I think those ores are indeed rather rare. So it's not a misnomer, just a phrase that's easy to mis-parse: (rare earth) elements, not rare (earth elements).

    For those whose memories of high-school chemistry are a little hazy across the vast gulf of time that separates then from now, the rare-earth elements are what we learned as the "lanthanide series". There are those two rows separated from the rest of the periodic table, because if you put them in their proper place the table would be too wide. The very bottom row is the actinides: elements that you can't make a magnet out of, because they're too radioactive. The upper row of the separate piece is the lanthanides.

    Scandium and yttrium also count as rare-earth elements, because they're found in the same minerals. But they don't have the same chemistry, and they're not used in rare-earth magnets and lasers and stuff.

    I think I've heard that part of the reason China had a monopoly on rare-earths mining is the environmental contamination associated with mining and processing them. So it wasn't just a matter of China's predatory exploitation of its cheap labor and good ore deposit, but also a matter of us exporting externalities. In effect, we didn't want Americans to have to live with the consequences of rare-earths mining, but we didn't care if some Chinese people did. Or to put it differently, we could pay them to be poisoned a lot more cheaply than we could pay Americans to be poisoned. Dunno how much truth there is to that, nor where I read it.

  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Kevin -

    You just gotta love a song with a line in it like "Well, fee fee fi fi fo fo fum... look out baby, 'cause here I come..."

    Heh.

    dsws -

    Read the original article from 2010, it's got a lot more solid info in it than this one. Check the links out, too, especially that graph of world production.

    Rare earth elements aren't all that rare, true. Processing them is really tricky, though, and they aren't concentrated in all that many places in high-yield ore.

    Here's an interesting tangent for you: when the Washington Monument in DC was built, they installed a pyramid on the top of it made from the most valuable metal of the day. Gold? Platinum? Nope... aluminum. Aluminum was devilishly hard to purify back then, and it was incredibly rare. Nowadays, we wrap fish in the stuff (even if we do still call it "tin" foil).

    The Mountain Pass mine was pretty dirty. Through the 60s (to the 80s) the biggest market for the stuff was color TV tubes (apparently you could only get true red with rare earths). But the problem is that wherever the rare earths are found, it's usually in a transuranic deposit, which mean the tailings are going to be radioactive (another way to put it: they're usually near uranium deposits). The mine was discovered in the late 1940s (it is truly in the middle of freakin' nowhere) by a uranium prospector.

    China lucked out, they were mining iron ore and realized that the tailings of the iron mine had tons of rare earths. So they were ALREADY mining the stuff (cuts down on overhead considerably when there's already a working mine digging the stuff out on the site), and they undercut everyone else's prices. Still doing it the old "dirty" way.

    Mountain Pass closed down because they couldn't compete, I believe. But the new company is supposed to be "green" (I haven't researched this independently, so I'm just going on their press releases, which is always a suspect thing to do, I admit), and is promising things like a closed cycle for their liquids (so they don't spew salt water all over the place with heavy metals in it), and special containment areas for the tailings. Don't know how reliable they are, but they're at least presenting it as a "different way" of mining the stuff.

    But cost and greenness aside, it's a strategic thing.

    There is (or there was, last time I drove by it a few decades ago) a national "helium reserve" in the panhandle of Texas. You know why we're stockpiling helium? In case we need it for military blimps. You know, WWI technology. I'm not kidding.

    If we can go to that effort to protect helium, then I think it is truly in our national interest to get this mine up and working again.

    -CW

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    PS. I love the rare earth series in the periodic table, because it truly represented the time when they began running out of good names for newly-discovered elements...

    Heh.

    -CW

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    What I dimly remember hearing about helium, way back in high school, is that some natural-gas deposits have it and others don't. When we compress the gas that does, we get helium basically for free. When we finish burning that gas, helium will be well-nigh impossible to get. We don't know what uses we'll have for helium in coming decades, but we don't want to be caught without if it turns out that helium has some wonderful use in this century's technology (this century having been some years off, at the time), regardless of whether it be a new version of zeppelins or something to do with superfluidity.

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    Hey Guys:

    Anyone know whether these rare-earth elements are recyclable? When you think of all the computers and cell phones getting thrown away...

    ?

  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:

    I don't know.

  8. [8] 
    etcgreen wrote:

    Good to see there are people who understand the critical impact that rare earths and heavy metals presents to our future economy.

    I am amazed at the frequency that people dismiss the importance of rare earths to our world. In the U.S. there are typically less than 20 miners killed in accidents per year. In China the official number is 3,000 with human rights activists suggesting over 18,000 per year.

    Solar, wind, EV's, computers, electronics, ..., all require rare earths. They are already playing a significant roll in throttling our progress for a Greener future.

    http://etcgreen.com/blog/general/evs-and-hybrids-are-not-our-future

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    Rogue: "You don't know or you don't care!?"
    Wolverine: "PICK ONE!!!"

    -Xmen

    Sorry, couldn't resist... :D

    Michale.....

  10. [10] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    Helium is also extremely tough to store, at least from what I've heard. Much harder than hydrogen.

    Paula -

    Ironically, recycling of computer components is a big business... in China. It's horrific for the workers, which is why most electronic waste is shipped there for separating into valuable components.

    -CW

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    etcgreen -

    First off, welcome to the site! Your first comment was held for moderation, but from now on, you should be able to post comments and have them appear instantly. The only exception is if you post multiple links in the same comment, which automatically causes it to be held for moderation (to cut down on comment spam).

    Thanks for the link, I will check it out. There is also another mine in Australia that (when I wrote the first article) was trying to reopen as well. And they're exploring mining rare earths in Alaska as well, but I don't know how far along they've gotten.

    What strikes me about this is the military hardware supply chain. If we can't produce the raw materials for sophisticated electronics, then that (it seems to me) should be seen by the politicians as a threat to our national security.

    -CW

  12. [12] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    One word of clarification -

    I just looked over the comments, and it looks weird. Michale commented to dsws' [7] comment, but when I approved the new comment that had been held, it separated the response from what had provoked it.

    Sorry, as this was due to my laziness in approving comments. Just wanted to clarify, in case etcgreen was wondering...

    -CW

  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    Yea, I noticed that... I should have referenced it when I did my movie quote, but I was too lazy...

    Michale.....

  14. [14] 
    dsws wrote:

    I've never heard anything about helium being hard to store.

    The Wikipedia article on the national helium reserve says it was 1925 that it was started for airships, and then in the 1950s it "became an important source of coolant during the Space Race and Cold War." No in-line citation on that, though. And it says we've been getting rid of it, starting in '05.

  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:

    Helium is also extremely tough to store, at least from what I've heard.

    From what I understand, helium is very easy to store..

    All you need is a clown and a balloon... :D

    In most cases you don't even need the clown... :D

    OK, OK... I'm gonna try and get serious here. :D

    Michale.....

  16. [16] 
    akadjian wrote:

    That's the sort of thing that would sound good in a presidential briefing. We're not there yet, in terms of supplying our own production of the rare earths we need -- but we're getting closer. Get ready, get ready.

    Nice post on our efforts here at home and kudos on the reference to the band.

    -David

    p.s. Now I hate you because that song is stuck in my head.

  17. [17] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    dsws -

    I must have been wrong about the storage problems. I thought helium required special seals, because it escaped faster than other stored gasses, but I don't know where that thought came from, so I'm probably just wrong.

    David -

    p.s. Now I hate you because that song is stuck in my head.

    The perils of reading my articles... heh. I was going to quote more of the song, then I realized that all you needed was "tweedley-dee, and tweedley-dum" to hear the whole song in your head...

    :-)

    Someone at HuffPost did castigate me for not attributing it to the Temptations, but the Rare Earth version was what I heard on the radio growing up...

    -CW

  18. [18] 
    dsws wrote:

    Actually, I haven't heard anything one way or the other about how hard it is to store helium, just that they pumped it into a natural-gas well or some such, which seems an obvious way to store a huge volume of any gas for a long time.

    I think I've heard that hydrogen is somewhat hard to store because it reacts with some of the materials used with other gases. That obviously wouldn't apply to the noble gases.

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