At the moment rare earth elements – essential for a cleaner, greener future – come almost entirely from China. And from what have been called some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country.
What needs to be clearly understood is that these rare earths – admittedly in pockets – exist elsewhere in the world. Not in great quantities. Not in every country. But they do exist. It is just that it is more expensive to mine them to environmentally acceptable standards and they cost more because of the wages differential.
While it could be reported that in Washington, Congress is fretting about the US military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives, the answer is fairly simple. Time and money. If the rest of the world decided that it needed these rare earths from somewhere other than China then this could happen – but at a price.
"In many places, the mining is abused," said Wang Caifeng, the top rare-earths industry regulator at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in China. "This has caused great harm to the ecology and environment."
There are 17 rare-earth elements – some of which, despite the name, are not particularly rare – but two heavy rare earths, dysprosium and terbium, are in especially short supply, mainly because they have emerged as crucial ingredients of green energy products.
Tiny quantities of dysprosium can make magnets in electric motors lighter by 90%, while terbium can help cut the electricity usage of lights by 80%.
Dysprosium prices have climbed nearly sevenfold since 2003, to $53 a pound. Terbium prices quadrupled from 2003 to 2008, peaking at $407 a pound, before slumping in the global economic crisis to $205 a pound.
Stephen G. Vickers, the former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police who is now the chief executive of International Risk, a global security company, said a close-knit group of Mainland Chinese gangs with a capacity for murder dominates much of the mining and has ties to local officials.
DNA reports the West ducked this issue until the possibilities of shortages and rationing arose.
David Kennedy, president, Great Western Technologies, which imports Chinese rare earths and turns them into powders that are sold worldwide, said, "I don’t know if part of that feed, internal in China, came from an illegal mine and went in a legal separator." Which probably means that the West is going to have to start mining its own deposits. But in a responsible way.