Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"You Don't Bring a Praseodymium Knife to a Gunfight" $MCP

Great Foreign Policy article looking back on the rare earth monopolization panic from a few years ago (written in 2010).

"They're not earths, and they're not rare. China has reached its dominant supplier position through good old-fashioned industrial aggression, not innate geographical superiority. Cheap labor, little environmental scrutiny, and a willingness to sell at low cost have made other producers give up. For competitors, like the owners of Mountain Pass, a California mine that shut down in 2002 partly due to the China factor [Molycorp!], that has been a daunting combination. For the rest of us, it has been fantastic: Affordable rare earths have helped power the information-technology revolution, driving down the cost of everything from hybrid cars to smart bombs.

But the non-rarity of the rare earths themselves means that China's position isn't sustainable. That California mine, for instance, could potentially supply 20 percent of world demand, currently around 130,000 tons a year. Another facility, Lynas Corp.'s Mount Weld in Australia, has the capacity to produce a similar amount. In fact, there are enough rare earths in the millions of tons of sands we already process for titanium dioxide (used to make white paint) to fill the gap, while we throw away 30,000 tons a year or so in the wastes of the aluminum industry. There's that much or more in what we don't bother to collect from the mining of phosphates for fertilizers, and no one has even bothered to measure how much there is in the waste from burning coal.

If rare earths are so precious, why isn't the United States working harder to collect them? The main reason is that, for these last 25 years, China has been supplying all we could eat at prices we were more than happy to pay. If Beijing wants to raise its prices and start using supplies as geopolitical bargaining chips, so what? The rest of the world will simply roll up its sleeves and ramp up production, and the monopoly will be broken.

But, of course, it's not that easy. Rare earths aren't found in nature as separate elements; they need to be extracted from each other, a process that involves thousands (really, thousands) of iterations of boiling the ores in strong acids. There is also almost always thorium, a lightly radioactive metal, in the same ores, and it has to be disposed of. (Thorium leaking into the California desert was a more serious problem at Mountain Pass than low prices.) So ramping up production would mean that Western countries would need to tolerate a level of pollution they've been all too happy to outsource to China.
[No wonder Molycorp is having such a hard time. It must be impossible to compete on price and meet environmental regulations. Too bad they tried to figure out with expensive debt instead of equity.]

Another possibility is that we find a new and different way to separate rare earths, as we find new and different sources for the ores. The main difficulty is that chemistry is all about the electrons in the outer ring around an atom, and the lanthanides all have the same number of electrons in that outer ring. Thus we can't use chemistry to separate them. It's very like the uranium business: Separating the stuff that explodes from the stuff that doesn't is the difficult and expensive part of building an atomic bomb precisely because we cannot use chemistry to do it -- we have to use physics.

The very fact that China has been supplying us all these years means that while Western academics in their ivory towers have been continuing to research all sorts of lovely things, very few of these findings have been tested in the real world. One possible solution, lightly investigated in academia but not elsewhere, is adopting the technology used to separate titanium. It might work with the lanthanides, or it might not. But we should try it, along with other high-tech methods, to make the best of our own strengths rather than trying to compete with China -- the land of cheap labor and environmental unconcern -- on its own terms."
Looking back on it, the rare earth monopolization panic was just another expression of the bogus commodity supercycle.

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