Only ultra-scarce yttrium, which is used in precision lasers and to stabilise rockets, may present a problem.
It’s not actually that rare. And it’s also a hell of a lot easier to find and refine than the lanthanides are. If you seriously wanted a few tens of tonnes, hundreds of tonnes, on a regular basis this could be set up and running for $10 to $20 million. As opposed to the $300 million that a new supply of the lanthanides would cost. That’s using current technology mind.
That points to the second major deception going on in the ‘China takes all’ dystopias that surround rare earths. The West only relies on China for current production. As the MIT team notes, despite their name, rare earths are not that rare. Though toward half of the world’s reserves are in China, significant quantities also exist in the US and the former Soviet Union. Used up at the current rate, the world’s reserves should last about 870 years – against a figure for, say, copper of 34 years. As the authors of the MIT paper note, known reserves for rare earths are ‘not expected to be constraining in the next 25 years’.
It’s also necessary to emphasise that “reserves” here does not mean total available stocks. It’s a technical mining term being used. These are the amounts that we know where they are, we’ve mapped them, done at least the initial drilling to prove the resource and we know that we can extract them with current technology and at current or likely future prices.
Just as an example, total resources of terbium (which we like very much for CFLs) are of the order of 20 billion tonnes in the Earth’s crust. I don’t know what actual usage is at present but I’d be absolutely amazed to be told that it’s more than 100 tonnes a year globally. Pretty surprised if it was over 10 tonnes in fact.
The real question of course is why is the US getting into a tizzy over this? It’s not a real problem, so why? Well, I’m afraid that it’s all really about US domestic politics and rent seeking. Seeing the beginnings of a moral panic (The slant eyes will kill US industry! It’s just a new variation on the old Yellow Peril stuff) the usual suspects have piled in to demand that government must spend money to solve the problem. That money to be spent on those urging the government to spend money of course.
I could even tell you which Congressman is running it and who he’s using as his merkin and who is paying for the campaign.
In October 2010, the German government approved a new strategy designed to secure the supply of rare earths and other key commodities; and this year, German industrialists have formed an alliance to get hold of rare earths and German chancellor Angela Merkel has signed a deal with Kazakhstan to obtain supply.
And they are an interesting bunch of people. Saw some of them last week. They’ve still not quite got the real point, which is that it is not RE mining that needs to be bucked up, it’s RE separation that does. And that a few millions spent there on new technology would solve the problem completely. But as is, I’ve found, generally true here in Germany the scientists and engineers understand economic arguments very well indeed and those scientists are now convinced. Whether the politicians will be I’m not sure.
Amusingly it would be possible to make Hartlepool the Rare Earths capital of the world. Sadly, despite the hundreds of billions that the government is prepared to spend on fucking windmills, there’s not that couple of million available for basic research on how to make fucking windmills.