Due to their specific properties, these elements are widely used in critical components in many technology products such as lasers, magnets, batteries and LEDs.
Rare earth metals are actually not that rare in the absolute sense. However, they are somewhat rare in the form and concentration that can easily and cheaply mined and processed.
The current “rare earth crisis” actually started the 1990s, when China flooded the world market with cheap rare earths from its mines and processing plants, many of them located in Mongolia. As a result, most rare earth mines and plants outside China were forced to close down. By 2010, 97% of rare earth metals supply is controlled by China.
What happened next is that, at then end of 2010, China announced the first round of export quotas, citing the need to conserve scarce resources to protect the environment. Some economists however, believed that a large part of the reason is to force foreign technology companies to manufacture their products inside China as there are is no restrictions on the export of finished products that uses rare earth metals.
Due to its complexity and environmental concerns, starting up new rare earth mines and processing plants takes time and large capital expenditure. At the same time, commercial operators are rightly concerned that China could once again undercut the prices once their plant is operational.
One of the main environmental concerns regarding rare earth processing is that in its minable forms, rare earth metals tend to coexist with thorium, a radioactive material. During the transport and at the processing plant, there will be concentration of thorium which needs to be managed according to the accepted standards of handling radioactive materials. There is also the question of the disposal methods for the thorium byproduct once the rare earth metals have been extracted.
Rare earth processing is also not something that can be left solely to market forces as the disposal issues of radioactive waste and byproducts can and is expected to outlast the business entity that operates the plants. In a way, aside from the risk of a nuclear meltdown, this concerns are similar to that of a nuclear power station.
Personally, I do not see any rare earth crisis. The heart of the issue is economic rather than strategic. The rare earth users, the technology product manufacturers wants to have their cake and eat it too.
They want cheap rare earth and they want a stable supply that is not controlled by a single government. Hence, there is a worrying tendency to push the extraction and processing of rare earth metals to countries which has “looser environmental standards”.
At the end of the day, if we; the end user cannot do without the products of rare earth metals, we must understand and be prepared to pay the full price for the management and exploitation of these minerals.
Would you be willing to pay slightly more for an ipad if it means keeping the enviroment safe for our children? I would.