The Chinese government have announced that they are cutting back their production of Rare Earth Elements (REE’s) in order to “meet environmental standards, and follow a sustainable growth path”.
That in itself may not sound like such a serious proclamation, were it not for the fact that REE’s (which include such delights as lanthanum, praesodymium, samarium and dysprosium) are absolutely essential for most of our high-tech gadgets. Lasers, touch screens, high-powered magnets, batteries, you name it – there’s almost certainly a vital REE component to it. If you’re reading this, you’re relying on REE’s to do so.
Now, the real crux of this – and the reason why the Chinese statement is so important – is that China has approximately 95% of the global REE production is from China. Perhaps more significantly still, all of the worlds Heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREE’s) – Eu, Gd, Tb, Dy, Ho, Er, Tm, Yb, Lu plus Y are from Chinese production.
It’s also quite probable that this restriction in REE output is not quite the environmental move being claimed by Su Bo (no, not that one). Let’s face it, they have a pretty bad record of using REE export controls as a political tool. No really.
So what China has essentially said is ‘we’re keeping these to ourselves’. As such they have a very tight control over who gets access, and therefore who gets the industry work fabricating the electronic components upon which the world is now so reliant.
That’s not so say that it’s all doom and gloom, or that we’re all going to have to go back to copper lines and dial-up internet. While China currently dominates the production of these elements, there are certainly other sources out there. Indeed, China’s got about 35% of the proven resources out there. There are significant deposits elsewhere which can be brought online relatively quickly. Indeed, the only reason they’re not producing at the moment is that China undercut prices so hard back in the 80’s. In fact, China has declared numerous export reductions on REE’s in the last 6 years years, so mines around the world have been in the process of preparing to come back online for some time.
Perhaps more significant was a very interesting find by a Japanese team which I wrote about last year. They found that ocean muds may well represent a significant source of future REE’s. There’s a lot of environmental questions to be answered – not least because we have a better understanding of the surface of the moon than we do most of our ocean floor – but hoovering up muds from the abyssal plain could be a viable and relatively low impact solution for an ever increasing demand for limited resources.