Western Rare Earths Discoveries May Just Feed China
By Ted Niles
Between the increasing demand for rare earth elements (REEs) to supply global technological advance, and the 2010 reductions of export quotas by China, the non-Chinese world faces a global supply shortage. This situation presents opportunities but also challenges. The speakers at last week’s Technology Metals Summit 2012 in Toronto stressed two of those challenges in particular: the absence of a supply chain for REEs outside China and the considerable economic challenges to any company starting a rare earths mine given that absence.
China produces 97% of the world’s REEs. The obstacles facing a non-Chinese REE industry stem from the inordinate complexities of rare earths themselves. Gold, silver or copper are metals that require only a relatively simple process of refinement before they are sold into the market. But the process which any of the 17 chemical elements called rare earths must undergo before their end use in, say, one’s iPod, requires a degree of scientific and technological expertise unlikely to be found in any roomful of scientists and engineers. Unless, of course, that room is in China. This because since the Chinese began serious production of cheap rare earths in the late 1980s, the rest of the world has all but abandoned its interest in them as anything but an end user. This was conspicuously signalled by the 2002 closure of the largest US rare earths producer, Molycorp’s Mountain Pass REE mine.
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