A supply of clean, affordable energy depends on little-known substances
There’s one problem with the silicon age: its magic depends on elements that are far scarcer than beach sand. Some aren’t merely in limited supply: many people have never even heard of them. And yet those elements have become essential to the green economy. Alien-sounding elements such as yttrium, neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium are key components of energy-saving lights, powerful permanent magnets and other technologies. And then there are gallium, indium and tellurium, which create the thin-film photovoltaics needed in solar panels. The U.S. Department of Energy now counts those first five elements as “critical materials” crucial to new technology but whose supply is at risk of disruption. The department’s experts are closely monitoring global production of the last three and likewise the lithium that provides batteries for pocket flashlights and hybrid cars.
Earlier this year the DoE took a major step by launching the Critical Materials Institute, a $120-million program to avert a supply shortage. Led by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa, with backing from 17 other government laboratories, universities and industry partners, the institute represents a welcome investment in new research. Unfortunately—like the original Manhattan Project—the program is driven more by the threat of international conflict than by ideals of scientific cooperation. The appropriation made it through Congress almost certainly because of legislators’ fear of China’s dominance in many critical elements and Bolivia’s ambition to become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
The worries are probably inevitable. China—historically a prickly partner at best to the U.S.—effectively has much of the world’s critical-materials market at its mercy. Take the rare earth elements neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium. Despite their name, rare earths are many times more common than gold or platinum and can be found in deposits around the world. In recent years, however, cheap labor and lax environmental regulation have enabled China to corner the global market, mining and refining well over 90 percent of rare earths.
At the same time, China has consistently fallen short of its own production quotas. In 2012 the U.S., the European Union and Japan, suspecting China was manipulating the market, filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO). China argues that production cutbacks were necessary for environmental cleanup. At press time, a preliminary ruling in October 2013 against China will likely be appealed. Meanwhile Japan has announced discovery of vast undersea deposits of rare earths, and the Americans, among others, are working to restart their own disused facilities. The shortages won’t last.
Bolivia’s lithium is a different story. The impoverished, landlocked country needs no artificial shortages to boost the market. As the lightest metal, lithium has unmatched ability to form compounds that can store electricity in a minimal weight and volume. At least half the world’s known reserves are located in a relatively small stretch of the Andes Mountains, where Bolivia and Argentina share a border with Chile.
There’s more at stake here than fancy gadgets for the rich.
The Latest on: Rare earths
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The Latest on: Rare earths
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The new findings validate a theory born more than a half-century ago, and in doing so have also shown just how rare these stellar dances can be. Out on the far edge of the solar system, hanging like ...
- China boosts production of rare earths, which could hurt prices as other nations start new mineson November 30, 2019 at 9:00 pm
Surging rare-earth production in China is presenting a new challenge to budding efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere to undercut the Asian giant’s dominance in a market for exotic materials used in ...
- CRU: Why Rare Earths are Vital for a Low Carbon Economyon November 29, 2019 at 1:12 am
LONDON, Nov. 29, 2019 /PRNewswire/ -- Rare Earth metals have long been a niche, but strategically important part of the mining industry. Although there are seventeen rare earth elements with a wide ...
- Perak PKR criticises state for rare earths deal with China firmon November 27, 2019 at 7:24 pm
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- VanEck Vectors Rare Earth/Strategic Metals ETF declares annual distribution of $0.2200on November 27, 2019 at 10:24 am
VanEck Vectors Rare Earth/Strategic Metals ETF (NYSEARCA:REMX) - $0.2200. 30-Day SEC Yield of 0.84% as of Nov. 26. Payable Dec 30; for shareholders of record Dec 24; ex-div Dec 23.
- Lynas sees February funding news for U.S. rare earths planton November 26, 2019 at 4:57 pm
Lynas (OTCPK:LYSCF-4.4%) expects to make an announcement on how it will fund development of a new heavy rare earths processing facility in the U.S. by the end of February, CEO Amanda Lacaze said ...
- Peak Resources receives U.S. funding interest for rare earth projecton November 25, 2019 at 7:43 pm
(Reuters) - Peak Resources Ltd ( PEK.AX) on Tuesday said it received an indication from a U.S. government agency regarding possible funding for its Ngualla Rare Earth project in Southern Tanzania. The ...
- Lynas expects funding news for U.S. rare earths plant by end Februaryon November 25, 2019 at 6:07 pm
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s Lynas Corporation ( LYC.AX) expects to make an announcement on how it will fund development of a new heavy rare earths processing facility in the United States by the ...
- Lynas expects funding news for U.S. rare earths plant by end Febon November 25, 2019 at 5:35 pm
Australia's Lynas Corporation expects to make an announcement on how it will fund development of a new heavy rare earths processing facility in the United States by the end of February, its chief ...
- Greenland Is Not For Sale. But It Has The Rare Earth Minerals America Wantson November 25, 2019 at 2:59 am
While it may be remote, Narsaq has strategic importance. The craggy hills surrounding the town are estimated to hold about a quarter of the world's rare earth minerals. With names such as cerium and ...
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