How to free the world from China’s rare-earth stranglehold

at 03:43 PM ET, 09/16/2011

Most people don’t spend a ton of time fretting over europium oxide. But the rare-earth compound is a key component of CFL bulbs, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to procure, causing bulb prices to leap dramatically. Rare earth metals in general are crucial for a wide range of electronics, from televisions to iPod headphones. And China produces 95 percent of the world’s supply. But as the New York Times reports today, China is shuttering dozens of rare-earth metal mines over pollution concerns. So prices are now skyrocketing. Is there any way out of this mess?

It’s worth recapping just how China managed to corner the rare-earth market. Despite their name, rare-earth elements aren’t actually all that rare. At different points in the 20th century, countries such as Brazil, India, the United States and South Africa all held the top spot for rare-earth mining. But in the 1980s, China cranked up production massively, causing prices to crater, and managed to take over the market, as this chart from the U.S. Geological Survey illustrates:

Part of the reason China could corner the market was that it didn’t follow the same stringent pollution safeguards that Western countries did. Processing rare-earth ore involves a variety of toxic acids, and tends to be horrifically dirty. During the 1990s, the biggest mine in the United States, in the Mojave Desert near Mountain Pass, Calif., would produce “hundreds of gallons of wastewater an hour, mixed with radioactive elements from thorium to uranium.” Eventually, U.S. environmental rules tightened and production shifted to China. The Mountain Pass mine shut down in 2002.

China’s dominance, meanwhile, has a cost. The country perpetually restricts the amount of rare earths it exports — reducing quotas by 40 percent in 2010. A variety of electronics manufacturers have been moving to China just to secure access to the metals, which are frequently irreplaceable. (To take one example, those tiny earbuds most people use to listen to their iPods are impossible to make without small magnets made using rare earths — take them away and we’re back to big, chunky, over-the-head headphones.)

But now Chinese leaders are starting to fret about the environmental cost. To see why, check out this old Daily Mail dispatch from Bautou, in Inner Mongolia. The city’s main mine, which produces nearly half of the country’s rare earths, has turned “the town and the surrounding areas into a poisoned, arid wasteland littered with unregulated refineries.” Even if other countries can eventually force China to lift its export quotas, it’s unlikely that the country will be able to satisfy exploding rare-earth demand forever.

So that leaves a few options. One, countries such as the United States could get back in the business of mining rare earths. We have, after all, the world’s third-largest reserves, and the Obama administration has been quietly pushing a mining revival. In 2008, California’s Mountain Pass was purchased by Molycorp, which, as Time’s Bryan Walsh reports, is looking at new ways to limit toxic wastewater with a view to restarting production there. The other option would be for scientists to find alternatives to magnet technologies that use large amounts of rare earths. Devin Powell of ScienceNews recently explored this endeavor, which is taking on an increased urgency in the United States and Japan.

Either way, 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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