ON A hazy summer afternoon, before the giant thunder clouds have had chance to unleash their fury, one of the most breath-taking sights you can witness is the Painted Desert of northern Arizona looming iridescently out of the mist. Even after swooping among the spectacular outcrops, mesas and buttes of Sedona, or nosing along the rim of the Grand Canyon, from the cockpit of a light aircraft 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) above the ground nothing can compare with the Painted Desert’s palette of multi-coloured rock formations stretching off to the horizon.
The blues, grays and lavenders come from the geologically rapid formation of sediments when water covered the land over 200m years ago. The reds, ochres and pinks hail from the much slower deposition during the Triassic’s dryer periods, when erosion and oxidation had time to work their magic. The pigments that give the fine-grained rocks their hues come largely from the iron and manganese compounds they contain. Other colours found along the desert’s southern fringe stem from the fossilised remains of a prehistoric coniferous forest. How such naked beauty could ever be labeled “badlands” beggars belief. The overall impression is one of geological majesty and extraordinary mineral wealth.
Amid such elemental abundance, your correspondent could not help pondering, as he turned for home, the recent moves by the Chinese to restrict their exports of rare-earth elements—scandium, yttrium and lanthanum, plus the 14 so-called lanthanides. Today, China supplies 97% of the world’s demand for rare-earth metals, thanks to a far-sighted government policy going back to the 1960s that envisaged the rare earths as “the oil of the twenty-first century”.
Now, with burgeoning demand for them at home, the authorities in Beijing have cut back significantly on the export of rare-earth materials. Over the past year, China has reduced exports of them from an annual 50,000 tons to 30,000 tons. In July, the Ministry of Commerce announced exports would be slashed to just 8,000 tons for the remainder of 2010.
With worldwide demand for rare-earth metals amounting to 134,000 tons last year, and only 124,000 tons being produced, the difference has had to be made up from dwindling stockpiles. By 2012, demand is expected to reach 180,000 tons, which could exhaust the world’s remaining inventory. The result has been panic throughout industrial countries.
What makes the rare earths so special is the way they can react with other elements to get results that neither could achieve alone. They are used, a pinch here and a pinch there, to make powerful permanent magnets for lightweight electric motors, phosphors for colour television and flat-panel displays, catalysts for cars and chemical refineries, rechargeable batteries for hybrid and electric cars, generators for wind turbines, as well as numerous optical, medical and military devices. To give just one example, every Toyota Prius has over 25 pounds of lanthanum in its nickel-metal hydride battery.
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