Rare Earths: China still in control

Rare earths mining

In a post late last year I pointed out that China developed what amounted to an essential monopoly on the manufacture of these unusual elements (usually sold as oxides) as a result of the fact that the only American producer (Molycorp) had some years earlier shut down its mine and processing facilities due to a supply glut and ruinous pricing. But the situation changed quickly due to a demand surge for these materials, which have a number of key alternative energy applications. A large amount of Chinese rare earths production came on the market from a number of very small producers who scoop up surface clays containing mixtures of these oxides and separate them for export sales. China has

clamped down on these operations, in part because they are environmentally disastrous, and also to restrict world supply, which has led to an enormous jump in pricing and a yawning supply gap. In less than two years, the price of Neodynium oxide jumped from $ 5.64/lb. to $ 77/lb. and Disprosium oxide from $31/lb. to  $295/lb.

Molycorp restarted it operations in 2010 and is ramping up its production, in part via acquisitions, but its current total production of 6,000 metric tons of different oxides, being rapidly expanded, is not likely to end China’s stranglehold on these vital products any time soon. The global situation is to some extent helped by the startup of a new separation plant by Linas in Malaysia, based on Australian rare earth ores, that was held up by local concerns about ore radioactivity.

The global demand for a number of the important rare earths is, however, ballooning due to their ubiquitous applications in a variety of products (wind turbines, catalytic converters, energy saving light bulbs, batteries, flat screen TV’s, electronics, etc).

I was privileged at a recent luncheon at Philadelphia’s Chemical Heritage Society to introduce the speaker, Steve Deutsch, an executive at Rhodia Rare Earth Business, who

drilled down into the supply-demand of the specific oxides and therefore the need to look

Source: Rhodia

at these individually rather than as a family.  It turns out that Cerium, Lanthanum and Neodynium account for over 80% of current global demand. All of these are so-called light rare earths and of the three only Neodynium, used for superstrong magnets in wind turbines, is facing a shortage. Dysprosium (magnets, lasers) and particularly Terbium(green phosphors, lasers, fluorescent lamps) and Europium(red and blue phosphors, lasers, mercury vapor lamps, NMR relaxant agents), all heavy rare earths, are on the critical list with pending serious supply shortages. This highlights the fact that while there is no shortage of worldwide rare earth deposits, each differs from the other in terms of specific rare earth elements, technologies needed for separation and the problem of radioactivity usually encountered in rare earth ores (presence of thorium and uranium) which can seriously hamper processing plans.

I  should put in a plug for the so-called Joseph Priestley Society monthly luncheons at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, located at 315 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. For people interested in the history, present and future of the chemical industry, attending these luncheons and visiting the extraordinary museum added a couple of years ago will prove worthwhile.

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One Response to Rare Earths: China still in control

  1. Sohail says:

    Excellent analysis and post description with the help of graphs

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