If you need to know something about rare earth metals, it is that they are crucial to modern technology, as they help to feed everything from MRI machines and satellites to headphones and nuclear reactors. If you need to know two things, it is that despite their name, they are not uncommon.
This second fact is crucial to put recent headlines on these 17 elements with strange names in the right context. Last week, many publications covered the news that a Japanese team of scientists had found a large treasure trove of rare earth elements off the coast of Minamitori Island in the country. It is estimated that around 16 million tons lurk in the deep sea mud, enough to meet global demand on a "semi-infinite base," the researchers said.
This news was positioned as of great geopolitical importance. China currently produces more than 90 percent of the global supply of rare earth materials (the exact figure tends to fluctuate year after year) and, in case of conflict, such reports could increase prices for the West and its allies, or even excluded them. completely. In this eventuality, Minamitori's treasure would be a lifeline. "It is important to secure our own source of resources, given that China controls prices," said Professor Yutaro Takaya Waseda, who led the Japanese research team, to The Wall Street Journal.
But experts say that the narrative here is incorrect. Despite appearances, Minamitori's finding is not as significant as the headlines have implied. And while China seems to exercise great power over this critical global supply chain, the truth is that the country can not simply make the West surrender by limiting the export of rare earth elements. We know this quite conclusively because it proved this in 2010, and it did not work. In both cases, the overlooked factor is how difficult it is to produce rare earth elements, compared to how easy it is to find them.
An aerial view of Minamitori Island taken in 1987. Rare earth minerals were discovered on the seabed near the island. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The name "rare earth" is a name that is inappropriate from the historical point of view, derived from the fact that when they discovered it for the first time, they were difficult to extract from the surrounding matter. The USGS describes the rare earth elements as "moderately abundant", which means that although they are not as common as oxygen, silicon, aluminum and iron (which together make up 90 per cent a hundred of the earth's crust), are still well dispersed throughout the planet.
The rare earth element of cerium, for example, is the 25th most abundant on Earth, so it is as common as copper. But unlike copper and similarly known elements, such as gold and silver, rare earths are not grouped into lumps of a single element. On the other hand, due to their similar chemical composition (15 of the 17 rare earth elements occupy consecutive places in the periodic table), they join freely with each other in minerals and clays.
As academic David S. Abraham explains in his book The Elements of Power, this is a tiring extraction process. To create rare earths from the mineral that contains them, this material must dissolve in acid solutions, again and again, then it must be filtered and dissolved once more. "The goal is not so much to eliminate the rare earths of the mixture as to eliminate everything else," writes Abraham.
Rare earth ore crosses these steps hundreds and hundreds of times, and for each new mining location, the concentration of the acids used must be recalculated to target specific soil impurities. To make matters worse, the entire process produces any amount of unpleasant chemical byproducts and is radioactive.
Processing rare earths involves a lot of time, acid and radioactivity
The entire process is "costly, difficult and dangerous," says former rare earth operator and freelance journalist Tim Worstall. He tells The Verge that, because of this, the West has been more or less happy to cede production of rare earths to China. From the 1960s to the 1980s, EE. UU He really supplied the world with these elements; all mined from a single mine in California called Mountain Pass. But in the 1990s, China entered the market and reduced prices, which made Mountain Pass unprofitable and led to its closure in 2002.
Worstall says there are many reasons why the production moved abroad. Some of these are familiar: cheap labor costs and the willingness to overlook environmental damage, for example. But there is also the fact that the production of rare earths in China is often a byproduct of other mining operations. "The largest plant there is actually an iron ore mine that extracts rare earths on one side," says Worstall. This means that, unlike the Mountain Pass mine, producers do not depend on a single product. "If you are trying to produce rare earths, then you are subject to the vagaries and roundabouts of the market."
World production of rare earth oxides from 1950 to 2000. Image: USGS
Everything seems to indicate that it gives China immense power over the market, but the truth is that the world is benefiting at the expense of China. Proof of this came in 2010 when China really started limiting exports of rare earths due to a dispute with Japan. This threat to the supply chain caused prices to rise, so investments flowed into new and old rare earth mining projects. Meanwhile, rare earth consumers such as Hitachi and Mitsubishi altered their products to use less of each substance.
In other words, when China tried to take advantage of its monopoly and limit supply, the rest of the world took over. As a think tank report on the consequences of the 2010 incident: "Even under such apparently favorable circumstances, market power and political power were fleeting and difficult to exploit" (19459002). The markets responded and "the problem quickly vanished." The money even returned to the Mountain Pass for a while, although the company in charge, Molycorp, collapsed in 2015 when prices of rare earths returned to 2010 levels).
Minamitori's finding is simply not as significant as it seems at first sight
So what does all this mean for the news of last week? Well, mainly that is not as important as it might seem first. There are many other sources for these elements and ways of circumventing China's control of global supply. Worstall, writing for The Continental Telegraph, points out that last week's find is almost identical to that announced by some of the same Japanese scientists in 2011, and tells The Verge that although the seabed is probably home to many elements of rare earths, there is still the challenge of processing things and, in fact, removing them from the sea and converting them into a usable form.
In a document describing the Minamitori discovery published in Nature Scientific Reports, the Japanese suggest that a hydrocycle could use centrifugal forces to quickly remove a large amount of unnecessary materials in the seafloor. But this method is not proven.
"No one has done it before, and no one has shown that it can work on an industrial scale," says Professor Frances Wall of the Camborne School of Mines at the University of Exeter. Wall tells The Verge that the Japanese team is doing "a nice job", but says that a lot of research still needs to be done before the seabed becomes a reliable source of these important elements. "There have been literally hundreds of exploration projects [that have found rare earth metals] and they have not been able to move forward in production because they can not prove they will make money," says Wall.
Forstall sums up the situation saying that "in mining, there are only two things: land and mineral, your backyard contains dirt, because it would cost more to extract the rare earths and then sell them." At the time it costs less to extract these rare earths, that dirt becomes mineral, but what have the Japanese found? At the moment, it is still land. "