Sunday, March 24, 2013

China won't be happy about this . . .

. . . but the rest of the industrialized world sure will be!  The Telegraph reports:

Japanese scientists have found vast reserves of rare earth metals on the Pacific seabed that can be mined cheaply, a discovery that may break the Chinese monopoly on a crucial raw material needed in hi-tech industries and advanced weapons systems.

"We have found deposits that are just two to four meters from the seabed surface at higher concentrations than anybody ever thought existed, and it won't cost much at all to extract," said professor Yasuhiro Kato from Tokyo University, the leader of the team.

While America, Australia, and other countries have begun to crank up production of the seventeen rare earth elements, they have yet to find viable amounts of the heavier metals such as dysprosium, terbium, europium, and ytterbium that are most important.

China has a near total monopoly in the heavier end of the spectrum, though it is also the dominant supplier of the whole rare earth complex after driving rivals out of business in the 1990s. It still accounts for 97pc of global supply.

Beijing shocked the world when it suddenly began to restrict exports in 2009, prompting furious protests and legal complaints by both the US and the EU at the World Trade Organisation. China claimed that it was clamping down on smuggling and environmental abuse.

"Their real intention is to force foreign companies to locate plant in China. They're saying `if you want our rare earth metals, you must build your factory here, and we can then steal your technology," said professor Kato.

. . .

Rare earth metals are the salt of life for the hi-tech revolution, used in iPads, plasma TVs, lasers, and catalytic converters for car engines. Dysprosium is crucial because it is the strongest magnet in the world but also remains stable at very high temperatures. Neodymium is used in hybrid cars, and terbium cuts power use for low-energy lightbulbs by 40pc.

The metals are also used in precision-guided weapons, missiles such as the Hellfire, military avionics, satellites, and night-vision equipment. America's M1A2 Abrams tank and the Aegis Spy-1 radar both rely on samarium.

Washington was caught badly off guard when China started restricting supplies. The US defence and energy departments have now made it an urgent priority to find other sources, but warn that it may take up to a decade to rebuild the supply-chain. The US Magnetic Materials Association said America had drifted into a "silent crisis".

There's more at the link.

This is hugely important.  China's effectively been able to hold most of the industrialized world hostage to its supply of rare earth elements.  If that stranglehold can be broken, everyone except China will be very happy indeed.



Cameron said...

Thank you, Peter. It's nice to start the morning with some good news.

Anonymous said...

Despite the name they aren't actually rare. China monopolising the market has always been impossible.

Bart Noir said...

But the environmentalists will prevent the sea-bed mining. "It's for the prawns!"

Anonymous said...

Oh, I suppose that China will declare the find to be within it's territorial waters...
brutus inquisitor