The March 26, 2010 edition of Science included a news article by Robert Service titled, “Nations Move to Head Off Shortages of Rare Earths“.
The abstract for the article states that:
In recent decades, rare earth elements (REEs)—lanthanum (element 57) through lutetium (element 71) along with scandium and yttrium—have become vital to a host of novel electronics and green-energy technologies. But while researchers are steadily inventing new applications for rare earths, the supply isn’t keeping up—and users of REEs are feeling the pinch. Today, China supplies more than 97% of all REEs, and increasingly the products from which they are made. But because its domestic demand for the elements has been growing even faster than its production, the country’s REE exports have dropped from 75% of the total produced to 25%. For a handful of elements, China is expected to use all it can produce sometime between 2012 and 2014, leaving the rest of the world out in the cold unless manufacturers and mining companies develop more sources soon.
I was interviewed for this article, along with a number of other people from within the industry. My key point was that the potential new mining companies have not been able to secure all of the funds that will be needed to start operations. The article goes on to say,
“[n]ew mining efforts are just the first step. Numerous rare earth oxides are invariably mixed together in ores. They must be separated and purified, reduced to metallic form, and then alloyed, cast, and shaped. All the Western businesses that used to do these extra jobs are gone and will need to be restarted.”
As I’ve said before, getting all of this done will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and will take anything from 8-10 years to accomplish, from start to finish – a time frame that scares away a lot of investors, who are interested in shorter term payoff. It’s a real dilemma – however, other countries are not resting on their laurels, in particular Japan. Western companies and governments need to act decisively, or they will find themselves frozen out of the market. We have 3 to 5 years to get this done but we haven’t even started yet.
You can obtain a copy of the article [for a fee], from the Science Web site here.