July 12, 2011

US In Scramble For Technological 'Gold Dust'

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Jim Sims, from Molycorp, says China is starting to export fewer rare earth elements than previously

Wars have been fought over oil and water. But are the future global tensions going to be over access to Scandium, Neodymium or Dysprosium?

Or could conflicts be fought over any other of the 17 rare earth elements, which, week by week, are becoming more and more important in developing the latest high-tech products?

Tucked onto the periodic table of the elements, in a little section once ignored by chemistry teachers, rare earths are now everywhere.

They are in your iPod or tablet computer, are vital for the red colour in your TV screen whatever make you have and allow your headphones to be small enough to fit into your ears.

They are in hybrid cars - both in the batteries and the fuel - and in new generation wind turbines, missile defence systems, solar panels and even F-16 fighter jets.

At the moment China provides 97% of the world's rare earth elements, which is making America nervous from both an economic and a security perspective.

Their price has gone up 1000% in just a year, which is making mining them in the US worthwhile once again.

'Rare earth shortages'

A deep hole in the ground high up in the Mojave Desert is America's only rare earths mine, and the race is on to dig out the supply to match the demand as only a few places in the world have enough reserves to make mining them practical.

"The world - America, Britain, everyone - relies on what China exports to meet their needs," says Jim Sims from Molycorp, the company running California's Mountain Pass mine.

"As China's exports are being restricted, we are looking at outright shortages of rare earths, probably this year and next," he adds.

America's only rare earths mine is located in the Mojave Desert in the US south-westSo the huge diggers and trucks moving vast volumes of rocks around, the daily explosive charges blasting the mountainside apart, are harvesting one of the world's biggest deposits.

The mine closed down 10 years ago when a flood of cheap Chinese rare earth elements made profits hard to maintain.

Until just a few weeks ago, Molycorp was asking for the US government's help to cover costs of digging these elements out, separating them off and moulding them into metal alloys.

But the price has gone up so rapidly, rare earths is suddenly looking like a good business.

Last year China's exports of rare earth elements to Japan were interrupted during a political row over territorial waters, which sent shudders around the world.

"We should be worried when any country completely dominates any raw material supplies," says Christine Parthemore, from the Center for New American Security in Washington DC.

"I don't think China is uniquely at fault in this situation, but they are using the political leverage that's derived from cornering the market they have as any country would.

"I'm sure America would do the same," he adds.

Increasing demand

The creation of permanent magnets, a key component in so many green technologies, is one of the key uses of rare earths.

They make the new generation of wind turbines more efficient and reliable. But there are such an increasing variety of uses for these elements, down to glass polishing, that there aren't enough of the raw materials to go around.

The speed of China's growth means the country is consuming more of its own rare earths, which has led to a drop in the amount available for export.

"It is a security issue strictly in the sense that these minerals are used in critical military components for their properties, which we don't currently have substitutes for," says Christine Parthemore.

"If the prices go way up or there are actual supply shortages, it can drive prices up over the long term on military procurement - or it can mean there are parts that we can't manufacture here in the United States anymore."

It increases the need for an industry to extract the ore and process the materials.
"The elements are all mixed together in the ore we mine," Jim Sims says.

"We turn them into a liquid, and let these elements settle out into oxides which are like powders," he adds.

Inside a warehouse at the mine are dozens of huge white sacks, each weighing a metric tonne and each worth $200,000 (£125,700).

"Those powders then get turned into metals as magnets or used in their oxide forms for a variety of uses in a variety of different substances," Mr Sims says.

As new uses are found for materials like rare earth elements, there will be more competition, and access to them may change the shape of global politics.