Govts find common ground over rare earths
My God, these are nervy times. If it’s not the China cyber threat that has us worried, it’s the Wikileaks attacks, or the latest poisoned search scam.
In any case, I’m declaring the rare earth crisis over.
Rare earths became an issue when China cut off supply to Japanese traders during their East China Sea squabble in September.
China, which supplies 97% of rare earths, denied that it had halted supply, which would breach WTO rules. It claimed later it was merely cutting quotas.
But Japanese traders were clear that they were unable to obtain the elements that are essential for precision instruments, hybrid cars, missiles, mobile phones and communication networks.
Rare earths aren’t particularly rare. They’re just dirty and dangerous to get at, and China dominates supply because of its willingness to expose workers to radiation and other hazards.
Clearly it’s a problem for tech manufacturers if the main supplier is unreliable.
But in the last month we’ve seen a series of Japanese announcements involving fresh rare earth sources.
The biggest is a government-brokered deal between trading house Sojitz and Australian mining firm Lynas. The 8,500-tonne contract will meet up to 30% of Japan’s demand over the next ten years.
Another Japanese trading house, Toyota Tsusho, plans to build a plant for rare earth minerals processing in Orissa, India.
Like the Australian deal, this also followed an agreement between the two governments. The new plant is expected to supply up to 4,000 tons a year from 2012, AFP reports.
Then, with a nice green approach to the problem, Hitachi has begun extracting rare earth magnets from discarded batteries and other products.
It has developed a machine capable of extracting 100 magnets per hour - eight times the current rate - and believes it can boost its use of recycled rare earth materials to 10% by 2013.
Nothing like a security flap to scare up new sources, and we are sure to see fresh Australian, African and North American mines come on-stream in the next few years.
The competition will do everyone good.