China is famous for mining one of the yuckiest, costliest and deadliest natural resources. But it's also home to 93 percent of the global production of so-called rare earth elements -- including two metals essential for a wide array of green technologies, from hybrid cars to wind turbines. Think of these as the Achilles' heels of clean tech.
Now the Times reports that the Chinese government is preparing to further tighten its control over these minerals, forming in essence a unilateral OPEC for rare earth metals. Australia's rare earth miners aren't the only ones worried. Toyota, General Motors, and even the Defense Department are holding their breath too as we all take another vertiginous step away from fossil fuels towards a new kind of dependence on China.
Today China produces over 99 percent of dysprosium and terbium and 95 percent of neodymium.
How important is that? A utility scale wind turbine uses more than a ton of heavy-duty and lightweight magnets, 700 pounds of which is neodymium. Rare earth magnets are still crucial in the electric motors that control the guidance vanes on the sides of missiles. And they are essential in hybrid cars, the manufacturers of which are already reeling from issues with rare metal availability.
John Hanson, a spokesperson for Toyota, told Treehugger this morning by email: "We cannot discuss the specific content or amount of rare earth metals in our advanced hybrid systems. However, it is true that various rare earth metals are used, and that new sources and new types will be needed as the auto industry continues to proliferate hybrid technology."
China's New Controls
As described earlier, rare earths are only known to exist in a few places in the world: Australia and North America, with much smaller reserves in India, Brazil, Malaysia and South Africa. But China's reserves are by far the largest, and the most easily accessed, given the country's lengthy and deep investment in extracting them.
The Times points out that a single mine (well, really a mining zone) in Baotou, in China's Inner Mongolia, produces half of the world's rare earths.
Of course, China's extensive mining has taken a heavy toll on the environment; it was the country's tolerance for quick and dirty extraction that made it the global leader. To get at the rare earth, powerful acid is pumped down bore holes, where it dissolves some of the earths. The slurry is then pumped into leaky artificial ponds with earthen dams. Much of this occurs at small, under-regulated or unlicensed mines.
But the government's bid to clean up the mining industry's act has led in part to a tightening of controls. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has cut China's target output from rare earth mines by 8.1 percent this year -- alongside cooling measures for other commodities, including polysilicon -- and is forcing mergers of mining companies in order to improve technical standards.
A scale model of China's Erbo Rare Earth Development Zone in Baotou, Inner Mongolia
Want Rare Earth? Build in China
But the impending export restrictions also speak volumes about China's growing domestic yen for these metals. Not only do they play a part in a slew of gadgets and machinery, but rare earths will continue to be essential for the country's growing green tech companies, like auto maker BYD.
But as worldwide demand for rare earths is also expected to grow 10 percent a year, the prospect of strict Chinese control over them could mean a reorientation of how businesses around the world, especially those in green technology, operate.
Jack Lifton, a consultant on these metals, spelled out the situation to OnEarth: "Sometime in 2011 to 2012, Chinese domestic demand will surpass Chinese domestic production. This means no more Chinese exports of rare earths, other than in finished goods made in China that they allow to be exported."
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