China’s rare earth monopoly
If you’ve glanced over the periodic table, you’ve probably noticed the two series of elements that are placed outside the main table. These are the lanthanides and the actinides. The lanthanide series, along with two chemically similar elements, Scandium and Yttrium, together make up the rare earth elements. The first rare earth minerals, which contain rare earth elements, were found in 1787 near the Swedish village Ytterby. Their discovery is evident in the names: Yttrium, Ytterbium, Terbium, Erbium (all named for Ytterby); Scandium (Scandinavia); Europium (Europe); Holmium (Stockholm); Thulium (Thule, the mythical northern land); Lutetium (Lutetia, present day Paris); Gadolinium (after Johan Gadolin, a Finnish chemist who studied rare earths). But these days, it’s not the Swedes who mine rare earth elements, it’s the Chinese.
Rare earth elements aren’t rare in absolute terms. What’s rare is to find them in sufficient concentrations that mining them is economically viable. If you do find them, they will be in mineral form, and separating the different rare earth elements from each other is hard because of their chemical similarities. So why bother at all? Because rare earth elements have become indispensible to a host of modern technologies, from LED screens and hybrid cars to missiles, magnets and lasers. It used to be that the United States supplied most of the rare earth elements to world markets, but during the 1980s, China burst onto the scene, undercutting prices and quickly gathering a near-monopoly—more than 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements comes from China.
Naturally, this absolute dependence on China for materials crucial to modern technology makes the West, and the United States in particular, uneasy. The fear is that China will use their monopoly to political ends, as they did in 2010 when they stopped all shipments of rare earth elements to Japan during a diplomatic dispute. More recently, China announced new restrictions on exports, a move presumably made in order to favor China’s own developing industry. A number of projects attempting to supply rare earths outside China are underway.
There are environmental concerns, as well. China took many shortcuts in order to undercut US prices so heavily, and one of them was ignoring the environmental hazard their mining and processing of rare earths presented. Although the Chinese claim to have cleaned up their act environmentally, their mines may still not be up to international standards. This especially concerns the large number of illegal mines that operate—large profit margins attract businessmen on either side of the law.
(Image credit: original photo by Nick Mann for National Geographic, showing Samarium, a lanthanide metal and rare earth element.)