Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rare Earth Issue Again: Back from the Brink

The rare earth issue has raised its head again. China has stopped shipment to Japan and according to Reuters has agreed to resume them.

Reuters states:

China accounts for about 97 percent of the world's total production of rare earth elements, about half of which are exported to Japan.

Total export quotas for 2010 had already been cut by about 40 percent from last year's level, raising concerns not just in Japan but Europe and the United States, since a ready supply is crucial to several key industries.

Japanese Trade Minister Akihiro Ohata said on Tuesday that the country should minimize the risk of supply shortages by diversifying rare earth mineral suppliers to other countries including Canada, Vietnam and the United States.

"I think we should diversify suppliers," Ohata told reporters. "We haven't put enough effort into risk management."

The rare earths are described in the USGS site as:

These are used for various doping and additive elements in electronics and specialty metals production. In a sense they are at the heart of our current high tech society, even more so than oil. The USGS report also talks about the US having abandon the RE production as follows:

Over the past several years the only domestic source of REE, the mine at Mountain Pass, California, has operated below capacity and only intermittently. Following environmental and regulatory problems with the main wastewater pipeline, the REE separation (solvent extraction) plant was shut down. Mountain Pass currently produces only bastnäsite concentrates and sells separated REE only from stockpiles produced before the shutdown. Even after the regulatory situation has been resolved, however, the long-term viability of Mountain Pass as a supplier of separated REE for high-technology applications is threatened by market factors.

Namely due to environmental factors the US has just closed everything up. What has this done, The Chart below shows what:

Namely the US has given China control over this market. The chart below depicts the total reserves:

The US has massive reserves and China has about 70% more but the US has abandoned a strategic asset to China due to environmental concerns.

The current production is as follows:

China owns the market. It thus controls the high tech world. This was a US Government decision to default to China. Let them use messy extraction while we remain pristine and at their whim. The Japan flap is only the tip of a longer term economic threat scenario.

From the USGS report we have:

The rare-earth elements are defined as a group of chemical elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides. The lanthanides are a group of 15 chemically similar elements with atomic numbers 57 through 71, inclusive. Although not a lanthanide, yttrium, atomic number 39, is included in the rare earths because it often occurs with them in nature, having similar chemical properties. Scandium, atomic number 21, is also included in the group, although it typically occurs in rare- earths ores only in minor amounts because of its smaller atomic and ionic size.

Rare-earths production is derived from the rare-earths ores bastnasite, monazite, xenontime, and ion-adsorption clay. Bastnasite is the world's principal source of rare earths and is produced in China and the United States. Significant quantities of rare earths are also recovered from the mineral monazite. Xenotime and ion-adsorption clays account for a much smaller part of the total production but are important sources of yttrium and other heavy-group rare earths.

In 1990, rare earths were produced by at least 14 countries. The United States was the largest rare-earths-producing country, followed by China, Australia, India, and Malaysia. Except for one primary mine in the United States, essentially all rare earths are produced as byproduct during processing for titanium and zirconium minerals, iron minerals, or the tin mineral cassiterite.

Thus we have a significant long term threat that we can eliminate if but we act.