China the Largest Supplier of Rare Earth Metals

Perhaps 100 tonnes of the rare earth metal Dysprosium are mined each year. Of that, 99% comes from China. Most is unearthed in Guangdong province, or in neighboring Jiangxi. Half of China’s supply is illegally exported, and the trade in it is linked to violent gangs, according to an article by Keith Bradsher, Hong Kong Bureau Chief of the New York Times.

The whole world needs dysprosium, along with varying quantities of the other 16 rare earths also mined in China. Lanthanoids, rare earths, are important in military applications like sonar and rangefinders, but they also are essential to the new green technologies.

The Prius uses lanthanum, a rare earth metal. So does petroleum refining. Many kinds of wind turbines need rare earth minerals. Magnets are essential to turbines, and magnets with dysprosium can be up to 90% lighter than conventional types. Terbium goes into energy-conserving lights and into television sets. Minute quantities of lanthanoids dope the semiconductors that go into many modern tools.

China is now moving to manage its rare earths supplies. In 2009, it announced that it was decreasing export of all rare earth metals by 38%. After negotiations, it agreed to cut back exports by only twelve percent.

China is encouraging manufacturers to build products that call for rare earths in China. From Beijing’s point of view, this provides jobs, while allowing them to better control their resource. China is generally short of resources, and must import many of its raw materials, but it is rich in rare earths.

China is buying, or trying to buy, companies that mine rare earth metals outside of their sphere of influence. There are not many of them. In 2009, no rare earths were mined in the United States.

The Mountain Pass mine, in the California desert, holds a rich lode of rare earth metals. However, it is not mining at present, due to environmental concerns. In California, mines must meet codes and standards that do not apply around the world. Partly because rare earth minerals are often associated with radioactivity, many layers of oversight affect a mine like Mountain Pass. It is slated to begin mining again in late 2011.

Meanwhile, in China, many illegal mines destroy cropland and pollute the environment, according to Mr. Bradsher’s Times article. Rare earth metals obtained this way are bought by brokers, who sell them to legitimate companies. Traders obscure the origins of rare earths in a way that serves both the miners and the end users. Green industries thus unwittingly encourage the destruction of the environment.

China appears to be increasing production while cutting back on exports. It has cut back for the last eight years. China, of course, has a right and duty to manage its resources, as every nation has.