Rare earth getting rarer

State-backed holding company Chinalco – China, Aluminum, Corporation – yesterday announced it will invest 1.5 billion dollars in ‘rare earth’, the collection of 17 trace elements like scandium, yttrium and the lanthanides, which include the densest of metals: iridium – the one that does not corrode up to 2000 degrees Celsius.

Rare earths appear in the form of oxidized ores, albeit in very scarce quantities, scattered across the globe. The highest concentrations are found in Inner Mongolia, China. California and parts of Australia also harbour some of the precious ores. More important though, China controls 97% op world production – and the country is stacking up, while the planet is running out.

The news therefore is seen as a policy move by China, reaffirming its grip on the rare earth’s market. The elements are crucial for competitive production of anything ranging from consumer electronics to electric cars.

Analysts say it will not merely lead to the metals getting more expensive – and electronics companies facing higher production costs, it may even lead to entire industries getting cut-off. Some things money can’t buy. China has a big and ever increasing domestic electronics market and the country would simply want to stash up for itself. That is at least what the recent shutdown of rare earth exports to Japan leads to suspect, following the dispute around the Chinese (fishing) vessel entering Japanese waters, and the detainment of the captain.

If a rare earth crisis arises it could have severe impacts for the implementation of electric vehicles. It is not to be confused with that other battery sustainability issue, declining stocks of lithium, needed for the lithium-ion batteries. No, rare earths are yet another resource we can actually run out of. The magnets in electrical cars contain for instance neodymium – one of the precious seventeen.

Although we may have great differculty storing the electrons, and the engine may fail to spin, there’s also good news on the front of EV technology: graphene. Tiny sheets of good old carbon. Try to run out of that one.

(c) Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org

Comments are closed.