Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Will the green dream falter on rare earth?

The primary reason electric cars are not cost competitive is that high-performance batteries are expensive to make.  AND they rely of obscure elements.  Now we discover that most of these elements are mined and refined in China.  It's not so much that these elements are only found in China but that the extraction process is so environmentally hazardous, only a country with minimal environmental laws will produce them on a commercial scale.

And like any rising industrial power, China has discovered the sheer magnitude of her raw material needs.  And suddenly she doesn't want to export so much of the raw materials she does produce.  China has learned to appreciate the concept of value-added.

China Cuts Export Quotas for Rare Earths by 35%
By Bloomberg News - Dec 28, 2010 9:06 PM CT
(Corrects percentage cut in quotas in headline, first paragraph and amount in first half of 2010 in second paragraph in story published Dec. 28.)
China cut its export quotas for rare earths by 35 percent in the first round of permits for 2011, threatening to extend a global shortage of the minerals needed for smartphones, hybrid cars and guided missiles.
The government allotted 14,446 metric tons of rare earth exports split among 31 domestic and foreign-invested companies, the Ministry of Commerce said today in a statement. That compares with the first round this year of 22,282 tons and the second round of 7,976 tons, according to previous ministry statements. The government usually issues two rounds of export quotas every year.
China, which accounts for more than 90 percent of world supplies, slashed export quotas by 72 percent in the second half of this year, sparking a surge in prices. Japan, the world’s biggest user, has sought alternate supplies with companies including Hitachi Metals Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp. seeking cooperative ventures at home and abroad to secure the minerals. more
Or the same news described by Business Insider.
China Slashes Rare Earth Exports AGAIN By 35%
Mike "Mish" Shedlock, Global Economic Trend Analysis | Dec. 30, 2010, 5:54 AM 
Rare earth elements are used in iPhones, iPads, hybrid-electric cars, wind turbines, flat-panel monitors, tiny magnets in the fins of bombs, missiles, laser-guided smart bombs, and a myriad of other industrial applications.
China cut exports last summer, then totally blocked exports to Japan last September in a border dispute with Japan and now has reduced export quotas again by 35 percent.
There is growing concern about this problem at the Pentagon and by manufacturers for obvious reasons. Please consider China's rare earths export cut spurs trade concerns
China's move to slash export quotas on rare earth minerals -- vital in a slew of high-tech products -- has raised fresh international trade concerns, and Japan's Sony Corp vowed on Wednesday to reduce its reliance on the minerals.
China, which produces about 97 percent of the global supply of rare earth minerals, cut its export quotas by 35 percent for the first half of 2011 versus a year ago, saying it wanted to preserve ample reserves. It also cautioned that it has not decided on the quotas for the second half of the year.
The little-known class of 17 related elements is used in numerous electronic devices and clean energy technology.
Sony, maker of Bravia brand flat TVs, Vaio PCs and the PlayStation 3 videogame console, will look for ways to cut its use of rare earth elements, including developing alternative materials, Iguchi said.
Prices have surged for these minerals since authorities in Beijing slashed their rare earth exports by 40 percent this summer, saying China needed them for its economic development. more
Naturally, the Germans are not pleased.
Germany urges China to change rare metals policy
Published: 7 Jan 11 16:43 CET
Germany on Friday urged a visiting senior Chinese official to review Beijing's restrictions on exporting so-called "rare earths" critical to manufacturing hi-tech goods.
Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday met Economy Minister Rainer Brüderle who asked that China "review once again restrictions that it has imposed or plans to impose" on the exportation of the critical minerals, Brüderle's spokesman said.
China announced last month announced a 35 percent cut in rare earth exports for the first half of 2011, drawing complaints from Japan and the United States. It has also hiked export taxes.
On Friday, the China Daily reported that the Ministry of Environmental Protection has approved tougher environmental standards for miners of rare earths, which could further drive up prices.
In recent years, Beijing has radically cut back rare earth metals exports resulting in rocketing prices for elements critical to manufacturing everything from iPods to low-emission cars, wind turbines and missiles.
China controls up to 97 percent of global rare earths production, according to Commerzbank, although this is mostly a result of low Chinese wages and lax environmental controls having made it unprofitable to mine the elements in other countries.
Brüderle issued a statement following the meeting with Li calling for "open, equitable and reliable access to Chinese raw materials." more


  1. We really need to figure out how to make our technologies using only commonly available materials. Carbon, silicon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, etc. I know we already use these elements quite extensively, but they need to become the only elements we use. Otherwise we'll have lots of trouble scaling up and developing future techs.

    Well, perhaps if we could figure out a way to mine asteroids we could avoid these problems...

  2. The folks in material sciences know about this problem. In fact, most of them dream about figuring out the magic formula that turns something very cheap (like silicone) into something extremely valuable (like computer chips.) Even better would be to take garbage and turn it into something valuable. Sometimes I wonder how much effort is being tossed at the problems of a superconductive transmission line, but I have been told it has become the holy grail of young materials sciences grad students.

    And no, mining asteroids is NOT energy effective. The rockets we know how to make are 90% fuel, 9% the rocket itself, and 1% is payload. Some day you may want to figure out how many rockets it would require to launch some serious mining equipment (and the fuels to run them) to an asteroid. Trust me on this--the numbers get so large so fast, it looks like the amounts stolen by the banksters very quickly.

    It's a lot easier to get along with the Chinese.