A supply of clean, affordable energy depends on little-known substances
There’s one problem with the silicon age: its magic depends on elements that are far scarcer than beach sand. Some aren’t merely in limited supply: many people have never even heard of them. And yet those elements have become essential to the green economy. Alien-sounding elements such as yttrium, neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium are key components of energy-saving lights, powerful permanent magnets and other technologies. And then there are gallium, indium and tellurium, which create the thin-film photovoltaics needed in solar panels. The U.S. Department of Energy now counts those first five elements as “critical materials” crucial to new technology but whose supply is at risk of disruption. The department’s experts are closely monitoring global production of the last three and likewise the lithium that provides batteries for pocket flashlights and hybrid cars.
Earlier this year the DoE took a major step by launching the Critical Materials Institute, a $120-million program to avert a supply shortage. Led by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, with backing from 17 other government laboratories, universities and industry partners, the institute represents a welcome investment in new research. Unfortunately—like the original Manhattan Project—the program is driven more by the threat of international conflict than by ideals of scientific cooperation. The appropriation made it through Congress almost certainly because of legislators’ fear of China’s dominance in many critical elements and Bolivia’s ambition to become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
The worries are probably inevitable. China—historically a prickly partner at best to the U.S.—effectively has much of the world’s critical-materials market at its mercy. Take the rare earth elements neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium. Despite their name, rare earths are many times more common than gold or platinum and can be found in deposits around the world. In recent years, however, cheap labor and lax environmental regulation have enabled China to corner the global market, mining and refining well over 90 percent of rare earths.
At the same time, China has consistently fallen short of its own production quotas. In 2012 the U.S., the European Union and Japan, suspecting China was manipulating the market, filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). China argues that production cutbacks were necessary for environmental cleanup. At press time, a preliminary ruling in October 2013 against China will likely be appealed. Meanwhile Japan has announced discovery of vast undersea deposits of rare earths, and the Americans, among others, are working to restart their own disused facilities. The shortages won’t last.
Bolivia’s lithium is a different story. The impoverished, landlocked country needs no artificial shortages to boost the market. As the lightest metal, lithium has unmatched ability to form compounds that can store electricity in a minimal weight and volume. At least half the world’s known reserves are located in a relatively small stretch of the Andes Mountains, where Bolivia and Argentina share a border with Chile.
There’s more at stake here than fancy gadgets for the rich.
The Latest on: Rare earths
via Google News
The Latest on: Rare earths
- Iluka catches global attention with rare earths planson February 24, 2021 at 9:08 pm
A host of western nations are in talks with Iluka Resources about its plans to create the first integrated rare earths supply chain on Australian soil.
- MP Materials CEO says there's a new 'gold rush' in rare earth mineralson February 24, 2021 at 4:28 pm
The scale of capital and investments being made in an electrified future is driving growth in the rare earth materials space, MP Materials CEO James Litinsky said.
- Iluka taps into rare earths growthon February 24, 2021 at 3:13 pm
Iluka Resources managing director Tom O’Leary has noted the company’s rare earths position as a “particularly important and exciting opportunity” for the mineral sands company.
- MP Materials CEO gives outlook for the rare earth mineral marketon February 24, 2021 at 3:12 pm
MP Materials CEO James Litinsky joined Jim Cramer on "Mad Money" to discuss the rare earth mineral market and how the company is working to address the auto chip shortage.
- Australia's Iluka Resources eyes downstream processing of rare earthson February 24, 2021 at 2:00 pm
Australian mineral sands explorer Iluka Resources Ltd ILU.AX said on Thursday that it is actively exploring the potential for downstream processing of rare earths in Australia. The Perth-based company ...
- It Might Take A Long Time For The U.S. To Become Self-Sufficient In Rare Earth Materialson February 24, 2021 at 8:23 am
The President recently ordered a supply chain review of U. S. reliance on overseas sources for rare earth elements. How hard would it be for the U.S. to become self-sufficient?
- China’s Weaponization of Rare Earths Is Bound to Backfireon February 22, 2021 at 3:12 pm
Beijing’s past attempts to cut off supply have only given rise to alternative sources. Limiting access to the technology that refines these metals is even more misguided.
- Europe’s Rare Earth Dependency Dilemmaon February 22, 2021 at 2:00 pm
Europe is basing its future on high-tech products and applications, but while it requires vast amounts of rare earth metals to do so, it produces next to none of these critical elements ...
- China May Ban Rare Earth Technology Exports on Security Concernson February 19, 2021 at 3:06 am
China may ban the export of rare-earths refining technology to countries or companies it deems as a threat on state security concerns, according to a person familiar with the matter.
- Chinese rare earths giant Shenghe is building global allianceson February 19, 2021 at 2:00 am
As the US takes steps to restore a full rare earths supply chain onto American soil, a Chinese rare earths giant is embedding itself more deeply into the global supply chain. China is currently the ...
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