Rare earth (RE) metals find application in devices inlcuding wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, LCDs, fuel cells, nuclear reactors and lasers. China controls some 97% of the world supply of REs, and in July announced a 72% reduction in exports of REs for the second half of 2010, compared with the previous year. It is predicted that in 2012, Chinese domestic consumption of REs will match domestic production, and this year will see a peak in availability and a demand-supply gap emerging on the world markets.
REs are not lacking in the earth's crust, and for example cerium ranks as the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, in fact similar to copper. There are however few economically concentrated ores of the metals and their very similar chemical properties make the separation and isolation of individual REs in pure form difficult and expensive.
While China attempts to secure its dominance of the world markets for these metals, the scarcity of REs is compounded by smuggling. As much as 20,000 tonnes or one third of total exports of REs were smuggled out of China, which both reduces the price of the metals and ensures the more voracious depletion of the resource.
In my previous article, I wrote about the British focus on wind-power to meet its renewable energy targets for the European Union, by 2020. I commented that the rate of progress in building the required more than 4,000 new wind turbines had been rather slow to date, and now it appears debatable that there will be sufficient neodymium with which to fabricate the magnets for them, even if the manufacturing could be speeded-up.
China has been making strenuous actions to buy mines of RE ore around the world, to maintain its dominance of the global markets, and I wonder whether this will extend to Greenland, where the melting ice-sheet is likely to ease access to the rich veins of REs and other elements that the world needs to maintain its technologies and energy supplies.
"Smuggling key factor in rare earths' scarcity," December 2010, Chemistry World, p6.