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Sunday, May 31, 2009

China, Japan in green technology race & rare-earth metals issue

Rare-earth metals or rare earth elements are a group of specialty metals with unique physical, chemical and light-emitting properties that are seeing dramatic increases in demand, owing to their technological applications. The bulk of the world's supply of rare earth elements comes from the mineral bastnasite. Bastnasite is a mixed lanthanide fluoro-carbonate mineral (Ln F CO3) that is found in rocks called carbonatites. (Carbonatites are igneous carbonate rocks. Structurally, they occur as volcanic plugs, dikes and cone sheets. ) The rare-earth metals group is considered to include the 15 lanthanide elements: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, promethium (does not occur naturally), neodymium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. The elements yttrium and scandium are also included as they have similar chemical properties, making 17 rare-earth metals in total. The resource and market details refer to rare-earth metals in the oxide form and the group is collectively discussed as Rare Earth Oxides (REO).

China's near monopoly on the raw materials for environmental technology - a 95 per cent dominance of world supply have been steadily reducing export quotas, and increasing export taxes owing to the importance of rare-earth metals availability to internal industries. China is prioritizing its domestic markets through steadily increasing export taxes on rare-earth metals in tandem with reducing export quotas. As a result, rare-earth metals are in short supply, and with demand forecast to progressively increase, the world drastically needs new suppliers of rare-earth metals. JAPAN'S increasingly frantic efforts to lead the world in green technology are the world's biggest importer of rare-earth metals, more than 10,000 tonnes per year. About a fifth of the country's total annual consumption enter the country through loopholes and smuggling substantially raise the quantities of rare metals that enter Japan each year which can't work without rare earths. Global demand for rare-earth metals is already outweighing supply, resulting in sharp increases in their value.

The weight and magnetic properties of rare-earth metals have made them important for wind turbines, essential to hybrid cars, and indispensable if the world ever hopes to covert to fully electric vehicles. Australia have predicted a wider global supply crunch within three years as demand surges beyond existing refinery and extraction capacity. All green technology depends on rare-earth metals and all global trade in rare earth depends on China. Japan, America and Europe must now realise that some markets are not real, but political. Bevertheless The Chinese Government wants full control but it doesn't have it. It is not in control of the rare-earths market in the same way that OPEC is in control of oil. Local miners will sell even if the government tries to control the price or the quotas.

There are potential supplies around the world like Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland which can be developed in a responsible, environmentally conscious manner, to become one of the world’s major sources of Rare Earth Elements - “Specialty Metals for a Greener World”. 2008-11-05 Rare Earth Industry Overview PDF

Rare Earth Elements - Applications

Most people are now familiar with hybrid vehicles, rechargeable batteries, mobile (cell) phones, plasma and LCD screens, laptop computers, disk drives and catalytic converters, but it is not widely known that these products, amongst many others, are dependent on the unique properties of Rare Earth Elements.

Rare Earth Elements make the world’s strongest permanent magnets. These magnets are utilized in electric motors to produce greater power and torque, and owing to the power of the magnets, less material is required such that engines can be considerably smaller and lighter in weight. Electric motors that utilize REEs are a key component of hybrid vehicles, which will become increasingly abundant on roads throughout the world in years to come. The powerful REE magnets also permit the miniaturisation of hard disk drives used in many electrical devices. Neodymium and dysprosium are the REEs with unique magnetic properties.

Many electronic products are powered by rechargeable batteries. One of the most effective rechargeable batteries is the nickel-metal hydride, or NiMH battery that is used in hybrid cars and many other electronic products. A mixed rare earth metal alloy is used as the anode in the NiMH battery, and makes up about 26% of the battery’s weight. Lanthanum is the main REE used in the NiMH battery.

A catalytic converter is a device fitted to the exhaust system of a combustion engine that reduces the toxicity of emissions. Such devices have been fitted to many automobiles in North America since the 1970s. Recent technological advances have seen the emergence of the three-way catalytic converter. This device reduces toxic nitrogen oxides to harmless nitrogen and oxygen, oxidizes toxic carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and additionally oxidizes unburnt hydrocarbons. Cerium is the REE used in catalytic converters, where it forms part of the catalyst. Tighter vehicle emission laws are being introduced throughout the world, and by 2010 it is predicted that 95% of all cars manufactured will have catalytic converters.

Rare Earth Elements are also used in another form of catalyst, commonly referred to as a fluid-cracking catalyst. These are being used increasingly in the oil industry as they enhance the efficiency of separating various fractions from oil during the refining process. Lanthanum is the main REE used in fluid cracking catalysts.

The use of REEs in magnets, rechargeable batteries and catalysts accounts for > 60% of REE consumption with demand expected to increase significantly in all these areas.

Source: Greenland Minerals and Energy

Currently there are two carbonatite deposits deposits that are up and running. One is at Mountain Pass, California and operated by Molycorp, a subsidiary of Chevron (formerly owned by Unocal). The other major deposit is at Bayan Obo in Inner Mongolia, China.The Nolans Project in Central Australia & the Mt. Weld project in Australia are large commercial body in development stages. The remote Hoidas Lake project also under development in northern Canada has the potential to supply about 10% of the $1 billion of rare-earth metals consumption that occurs in North America every year. Prospective miners in Australia and the US are experiencing financing difficulties and as soon as new facilities have emerged in Asia and elsewhere, Chinese companies have quickly become majority investors.


Major Uses of Rare Earth Elements
Dysprosium as rare earth elements.

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1 Comment:

Mystique Earth said...

Quite an interesting find. Keep up the good work.

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