Nov 22, 2010

Rare Earth Metal Shortages

Below are selections from a great Reuters online article today about the perceived scarcity of rare earth metals, despite their ready abundance. Rare earths such as lithium are very important in the move to more alternative energies.

Many of the rare earths, as are petrol products, are in countries who may wish to use their abundance against the philosophies of the western world. This has caused manufacturers to attempt to cut back or recycle rare earth metals whenever possible. This is a great thing since now you get alternative energy but with less mineral depletion and reliance on oft times restrictive cultural thinking of some countries

Prices have surged for these minerals, used in everything from iPods to fluorescent light bulbs, since authorities in Beijing slashed their rare earth exports by 40 percent this summer, saying China needed them for its own economic development.

But big U.S. users of rare earth said the surge in price serves as an important wake-up call on the importance of efficient use of raw materials.

"The fact is a lot of (products) have been designed and the manufacturing processes have been designed at times when the material was not at risk," said Steven Duclos, chief scientist at General Electric Co's global research center.

The largest U.S. conglomerate, for instance, is working on a project partly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that aims to reduce the amount of rare earths in its electricity-generating wind turbines by up to 80 percent.

That's a significant number, given that a commercial wind turbine contains about a ton of rare earth.
"An 80 percent reduction goes a long way to solving the problems," Duclos said.

Although rare earth minerals are quite common, they are expensive to produce in a form that industry can use.

China, which currently produces about 97 percent of the world's supply, began cornering that market a decade ago, when low prices made mining for these minerals unappealing financially for Western companies.

Metals experts say there's little reason to expect that China will ease its restrictions on rare earths.

Besides developing more sources of rare earths outside China, corporate users need to think of ways of recycling them, GE's Duclos said.

Today, about one-third of fluorescent tubes are recycled at the end of their life span. The glass, metal ends and mercury are all captured and reused, but the rare earths used in the bulbs end up in landfills.

"We have to stop using these elements and then, at the end of their first life, burying them," Duclos said. "Obviously, as the price goes up, the recycling does begin to make economic sense."
The silver lining in the run-up in rare earth prices may be that corporate America will learn to deal with future raw material shortages.

"Every few years there will be a set of supply shortage that take place, but I think innovation will occur," he said. "I think long-term supply and demand generally meet."

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