Rare Earth Elements and Balance of Power

I write these blogs for me. I ask questions and search for answers in books and, mostly, exploring the Internet.

Without Rare Earth Elements I would not be doing this.

When I was born just after World War II, if anyone had shown my parents a crystal ball view of what I am doing now they would have thought it was highly unlikely.

I, like many others, use modern technology which incorporates Rare Earth Elements, to create my blogs. These words reach the world via complex technology which depends on Rare Earths. Rare Earths are Rare, they are finite. We will run out of them as we will run out of oil and gas. There is a race on to find them, and once found, eco-destruction of the location follows.

Rare Earths

The Earth Sciences are fascinating to me, since they are explaining my life experience through the eyes of science. Today I learned about Rare Earths and how one of them, emporium was historically significant, especially boosting the finances of the US at the time:

“The demand for rare earth elements saw its first explosion in the mid-1960s, as the first color television sets were entering the market. Europium was the essential material for producing the color images. The Mountain Pass Mine began producing europium from bastnasite, which contained about 0.1% europium. This effort made the Mountain Pass Mine the largest rare earth producer in the world and placed the United States as the leading producer.

Molycorp Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine, Mojave Desert, California

I was fascinated by the story of the mine being discovered in1949, through to its height as the lead producer of rare earths in the world in the mid-1960s, and on to its decline when China entered the market offering the same product much more cheaply by the 1990s. This led to the closure of the only rare earth mine in the US.

Mountain Pass mine
Graph from Geology.com

Extract below is from Defence.Capital

REMs are crucial and strategically indispensable due to their various applications such as catalysts, glass polishing, wind turbines, lasers, atomic batteries, fibre-optics, defence equipment, space satellitesnuclear energy and optical devices, automobiles, electronic chips, diode-pumped solid-state lasers and power generation.

So, the worldwide demand for REMs has soared materially in line with their expansion into strategic and hi-tech segments. Even futuristic technologies also count on these REMs due to their unique chemical, electrical, magnetic, heat-resistance, spectroscopic and phosphorescent properties that deliver significant performance and super strength characteristics.

In the defence segment, some of these vital metals are being used exceptionally in the building of advanced and futuristic military systems including night-vision and electro-optical sensors, precision-guided munitions, communication systems, Global Positioning System equipment, radar batteries and other critical defence electronics.

They are the pioneers for creating very tough and unique alloys used in military aircraft, armoured vehicles, jet engines and projectiles. These non-substitutable REMs are best suited for next-generation commercial and military systems.

The modern fifth generation fighter aircraft, modern-age nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs) and nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), warships, guided cruise missile, long-range ballistic weapons, and EO-IR sensors, but not limited to these, all these gears integrate REMs in considerable quantity. For example, new-age stealth fighter jets could utilise over 400 kg to 450 kg REMs, while an SSN could employ as much as around five tons of Rare Earths.

China has steadily dominated the market in supplying Rare Earths to the world, but it can limit supplies and push up costs, just as oil producers have done in the past. The ability to withdraw supplies if a country takes an action which offends China has made them unpopular to many of their major customers. Consequently, new sources are being mined around the world. Even close to the Chinese border, as in Myanmar, often carrying out illegal mining. But competition also is coming from Malaysia (at a cost to their tropical forests), and Russia.

RUSSIA ACCOUNTS FOR LESS THAN 2% OF GLOBAL PRODUCTION, BUT OWNS THE WORLD’S FOURTH-BIGGEST RESERVES, ACCORDING TO THE U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

High tech weapons today are designed utilising rare earth properties. To be a main player, just as with nuclear weapons, each country is ramping up its ownership of sophisticated modern tech weapons. See India’s perspective. Any country dependent on China for supplies of rare earth’s is beholden to China. Just as China also dominates the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients supplies.

China, the US and Japan consume the most Rare Earth Supplies to provide certain technologies the rest of the world consumes.

Heavy Rare Earth Minerals (REMs) are sourced in China and some in neighbouring Myanmar. these are: YttriumEuropiumGadoliniumTerbiumDysprosiumHolmiumErbiumThuliumYtterbium, and Lutetium

China has the most reserves of light REMs. These are:

LanthanumCeriumPraseodymiumNeodymiumPromethium, and Samarium

Modern technology requires an essential ingredient, we cannot have many of our familiar new technological devices without it. Wind Turbines would not work without it. It is a Rare Earth mineral. China runs the mines on the edge of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. Its name is NEODYMIUM. Years ago I wrote a blog about it, again linked to my concerns about wind turbines production.

Farmers used the land before it was mined and suffered immensely since it was discovered. Their pastoral land was horribly poisoned as the mining developed. People who have witnessed the mining operations have been so shocked they have felt they must document it, such as ejatlas.org.

But all mines wreck the environment of those who used it for pastoral purposes historically. All countries give priority to the highest earning process, and farming cannot compete with mining minerals which are in high demand.

The Bayan Obo location is the largest rare earth deposit (REE) in the world. In addition there are deposits of niobium and iron.

But as nations seek the materials to create modern technology the land on which we live becomes a hostile place for all living things.

China now hosts 36% of the world’s total REE reserve base, and the Chinese REE production accounted for 63% of the total world production in 2019 [10]. 80% of the REE reserves in China are distributed in the Bayan Obo region, Inner Mongolia, Northern China [11]. The Bayan Obo open-pit mine contained approximately 1.4 billion tons of iron, 1 million tons of Nb2O5, and more than 40 million tons of REE minerals. Its production alone accounted for 45% of the total world REE production in 2015 .

Bayan Obo open-pit mine – View of one of the 3 Orebodies. Ren Junchuan/Xinhua Press/Corbis (https://www.bu.edu/cas/magazine/spring16/elements-of-conflict/ )

China is developing a massive business park in the region. See concerns over conflicts over rare earth production.

According to Klinger, rare earths make up almost one-fifth of naturally occurring elements, and are more than twice as abundant as copper in the Earth’s crust. And we don’t gobble them nearly as quickly as we have with copper. That’s because rare earths are to technology what baking soda is to chocolate chip cookies: a little goes a long way. According to a report from Adamas Intelligence, which publishes research on metals and mining, global consumption of rare earths was just over 120,000 metric tons in 2014, compared to copper at nearly 22 million metric tons.

Economic imperatives lead companies to continue to push for new mines, either in the United States or abroad, where environmental controls may be weaker And new projects are likely to move more rock, consume more energy and have longer-lasting impacts than those that preceded them.

Ensuring that mining operations are subject to effective oversight and long-term monitoring, and that companies are held accountable for environmental damages, is a long-term challenge wherever mining takes place. The best way to completely avoid the complications that come from mining more minerals is to reduce consumption of them, make mining processes more efficient and make it more economic to recycle industrial materials and rare earth metals.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

If we go to war over access to REMs we will end ourselves sooner rather than later. We are already dying from massive contamination of this Planet, once a Paradise. We have the tools to put a brake on the harm we are doing and clean up the legacy of destruction – not with the odd project here and there but with superpower effort from all of us. Greenwashing away the truth is a cruel attempt to prevent action to save ourselves.

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see https://www.abebooks.co.uk/products/isbn/9780749427917
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