If you need to know one thing about rare earth metals, it’s that they’re crucial to modern technology, helping power everything from MRI machines and satellites to headphones and nuclear reactors. If you need to know two things, it’s that despite their name, they’re not at all rare.
This second fact is crucial when putting recent headlines about these 17 oddly named elements in proper context. Last week, many publications covered the news that a Japanese team of scientists had found a huge trove of rare earth elements off the coast of the country’s Minamitori Island. Some 16 million tons were estimated to be lurking in the deep-sea mud, enough to meet global demand on a “semi-infinite basis,” said the researchers.
This news was positioned as having great geopolitical significance. China currently produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth materials (the exact figure tends to fluctuate year-by-year), and in the event of a conflict, said reports, it could jack up prices for the West and its allies, or even shut them out altogether. In this eventuality, the Minamitori hoard would be a lifeline. “It is important to secure our own source of resources, given how China controls the prices,” Professor Yutaro Takaya Waseda, who led the Japanese research team, told The Wall Street Journal.
But experts say the narrative here is wrong. Despite appearances, the Minamitori find is not as significant as headlines have implied. And although China seems to wield great power over this critical global supply chain, the truth is that the country can’t just bring the West to its knees by limiting the export of rare earth elements. We know this pretty conclusively because it tried this in 2010, and it didn’t work out. In both cases, the overlooked factor is just how difficult it is to produce rare earth elements, compared to how easy it is to find them.
The name “rare earth” is a historical misnomer, stemming from that when they first discovered, they were difficult to extract from surrounding matter. The USGS (United States Geological Survey) describes rare earth elements as “moderately abundant,” meaning that although they’re not as common as elements like oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron (which together make up 90 percent of the Earth’s crust), they’re still well dispersed around the planet.
The rare earth element of cerium, for example, is the 25th most abundant on Earth, making it about as common as copper. But unlike copper and similarly well-known elements, such as gold and silver, rare earths don’t clump together in single-element lumps. Instead, because of their similar chemical composition (15 of the 17 rare earth elements occupy consecutive places on the periodic table), they bond freely with one another in minerals and clays.
As the academic David S. Abraham explains in his book The Elements of Power, this makes for a grueling extraction process. To create rare earths from the ore that contains them, this material has to be dissolved in solutions of acids, over and over again, then filtered, and dissolved once more. “The goal is not so much to remove rare earths from the mix as to remove everything else,” writes Abraham.
Rare earth ore goes through these steps hundreds and hundreds of times, and for each new mining location, the concentration of the acids used has to be recalculated in order to target the specific impurities in the soil. To top it off, the whole process produces any number of nasty chemical byproducts and is radioactive.
The whole process is “expensive, difficult, and dangerous,” says former rare earth trader and freelance journalist Tim Worstall. He tells The Verge that, because of this, the West has been more or less happy to cede production of rare earths to China. From the 1960s to the ‘80s, the US did actually supply the world with these elements; all extracted from a single mine in California named Mountain Pass. But in the ‘90s, China entered the market and drove down prices, making Mountain Pass unprofitable and leading to its closure in 2002.
Worstall says there are many reasons production moved overseas. Some of these are familiar: cheap labor costs and a willingness to overlook environmental damage, for example. But there’s also the fact that rare earth production in China is often a byproduct of other mining operations. “The biggest plant there is actually an iron ore mine which extracts rare earths on the side,” says Worstall. This means that, unlike the Mountain Pass mine, producers aren’t reliant on a single product. “If you are trying to only produce rare earths, then you’re subject to the swings and roundabouts of the market.”
All this looks like it gives China immense power over the market, but the truth is the world is benefiting at China’s expense. Proof of this came in 2010 when China did actually start limiting rare earth exports because of a dispute with Japan. This threat to the supply chain caused prices to rise, and so investment flowed into new and old rare earth mining projects. Meanwhile, consumer of rare earths like Hitachi and Mitsubishi altered their products to use less of each substance.
In other words, when China tried to take its advantage of its monopoly and limit supply, the rest of the world picked up the slack. As a think tank report on the fallout from the 2010 incident put it: “Even with such apparently favorable circumstances, market power and political leverage proved fleeting and difficult [for China] to exploit.” Markets responded and “the problem rapidly faded.” (Money even flowed back into Mountain Pass for a while, although the company in charge, Molycorp, collapsed in 2015 when rare earth prices fell back to 2010 levels.)
So what does all this mean for last week’s news? Well, mostly that it’s not as important as it might first appear. There are plenty of other sources for these elements, and ways to circumvent China’s control of the global supply. Worstall, writing for The Continental Telegraph, points out that last week’s find is nearly identical to one announced by some of the same Japanese scientists in 2011, and he tells The Verge that although the sea bed is most likely home to many rare earth elements, there’s still the challenge of processing the stuff and actually getting it out of the sea and into a usable form.
In a paper describing the Minamitori find published in Nature Scientific Reports, the Japanese suggest a hydrocycle could use centrifugal forces to quickly separate out a lot of the unnecessary materials in the sea mud. But this method is unproven.
“Nobody has ever done it before, and no-one has proved it can work at an industrial scale,” says Professor Frances Wall of the Exeter University’s Camborne School of Mines. Wall tells The Verge that the Japanese team are doing “some nice work,” but says a huge amount of research has yet to be done before the seabed becomes a reliable source of these important elements. “There have been literally hundreds of exploration projects [that have found rare earth metals] and they’ve not been able to go forward through production because they can’t prove they’ll make any money,” says Wall .
Forstall sums up the situation by saying “in mining, there are just two things: dirt and ore. Your back garden contains dirt, because it would cost more to extract the rare earths from it then you would make selling them on. The moment it costs less to extract those rare earths, that dirt becomes ore. But what have the Japanese have found? At the moment, it’s still dirt.”