A mine in Baiyun Obo (Baiyun Ebo ç™½äº‘é„‚åš), near Baotou, home to half the world's rare earth production
China is famous for mining one of the yuckiest, costliest and deadliest natural resources. But it's also home to 93 percent of global production of so-called rare earth elements — including two metals essential for a wide array of green technologies, from hybrid cars to wind turbines. Think of these as the Achilles' heels of clean tech.
Now the Times reports that the Chinese government is preparing to further tighten its control over export of these minerals, as it forms in essence a kind of OPEC for rare earth metals. Australia's rare earth miners aren't the only ones worried. Toyota, General Motors, and even the Defense Department are holding their breath too as we all take another vertiginous step away from fossil fuels towards a new kind of dependence on China.
Today, China produces over 99 percent of dysprosium and terbium and 95 percent of neodymium.
How important is that? A utility scale wind turbine uses more than a ton of heavy-duty and lightweight magnets, 700 pounds of which is neodymium. Rare earth magnets are still crucial in the electric motors that control the guidance vanes on the sides of missiles. And they are essential in hybrid cars, the manufacturers of which are already reeling from issues with rare metal availability.
John Hanson, a spokesperson for Toyota, told Treehugger this morning by email: "We cannot discuss the specific content or amount of rare earth metals in our advanced hybrid systems. However, it is true that various rare earth metals are used, and that new sources and new types will be needed as the auto industry continues to proliferate hybrid technology."
China's New Controls
As Matthew described earlier, rare earths are only known to exist in a few places in the world: Australia and North America, with much smaller reserves in India, Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa. But China's reserves are by far the largest, and the most easily accessed, given the country's lengthy and deep investment in extracting them.
The Times points out that a single mine near Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia, produces half of the world's rare earths.
Of course, China's extensive mining has taken a heavy toll on the environment; it was the country's tolerance for quick and dirty extraction that made it the global leader. To get at the rare earth, powerful acid is pumped down bore holes, where it dissolves some of the earths. The slurry is then pumped into leaky artificial ponds with earthen dams. Much of this occurs at small, under-regulated or unlicensed mines.
But the government's bid to clean up the mining industry's act has led in part to a tightening of controls. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has cut China's target output from rare earth mines by 8.1 percent this year -- alongside cooling measures for other commodities, including polysilicon -- and is forcing mergers of mining companies in order to improve technical standards.
A scale model of China's Erbo Rare Earth Development Zone in Baotou, Inner Mongolia (Courtesy The Anchor Site)
Want Rare Earth? Build in China
But the impending export restrictions also speak volumes about China's growing domestic yen for these metals. Not only do they play a part in a slew of gadgets and machinery, but rare earths will continue to be essential for the country's growing green tech companies, like battery maker turned auto upstart BYD.
But as worldwide demand for rare earths is also expected to grow 10 percent a year, the prospect of strict Chinese control over them could mean a reorientation of how businesses around the world, especially those in green technology, operate.
Jack Lifton, a consultant on these metals, spelled out the situation to OnEarth:
"Sometime in 2011 to 2012, Chinese domestic demand will surpass Chinese domestic production. This means no more Chinese exports of rare earths, other than in finished goods made in China that they allow to be exported."
Just last week, GM announced it was shifting operation power from Detroit to Shanghai, which will now serve as the base for all non-U.S. business. A coincidence with the tightening of rare earth metals, but a necessary one for the company, which will need rare earths to build its Chevrolet Volt engine and battery.
An electric motor in a Prius, for instance, requires 2 to 4 pounds of neodymium and dysprosium for its drive motor and lanthanum in its rechargeable battery. Already, Japan is thought to depend on a black import network for its rare earths, of which it imports more than anyone else (10,000 tons per year). And Toyota is currently suffering from a serious slump in battery production.
No wonder that, as Lifton told the Times, Toyota officials "had expressed strong worry to him on Sunday about the availability of rare earths."
Is green tech everywhere about to take a serious hit? The answer might depend in large part on how other countries, especially the United States, engage China around the issue of climate change. If China is serious about developing clean technology with the help of the developed world (and cleaning up its industrial act), as it has indicated in the run up to Copenhagen, the country will need to share the essential ingredients.
But it's a two-way street. U.S. officials will walk a fine line between demanding foreign access to rare earths amidst China's demand, all the while remembering that the cheap Chinese price of these metals still comes with a heavy environmental cost.