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The sustainability of the Rare Earth Industry

1. Introduction to the Rare Earth Elements: a scientific and technical approach

1.1 What are the Rare Earth Elements?

Rare Earth Elements are seventeen different elements of the periodic table. The Rare Earth Elements’ group is the biggest chemically coherent one along the periodic table[1].

All those elements occur together in the periodic table, however we can divide them into two categories: heavy rare earths – Lanthanum (La), Cerium (Ce), Praseodymium (Pr), Neodymium (Nd) and Samarium (Sm)– and light rare earths –Europium (Eu), Gadolinium (Gd), Terbium (Tb), Dysprosium (Dy), Holmium (Ho), Erbium (Er), Thulium (Tm), Ytterbium (Yb), Lutetium (Lu) and Yttrium (Y) [2]. Even though most of them form part of the chemical group of lanthanides, Yttrium and Scandium are not lanthanides[3].

1.2 Are Rare Earth Elements the same as Rare Earth Minerals?

In spite of the fact that “Rare Earth Mineral” is frequently used as a synonym of Rare Earth Elements, they are not the same. Furthermore, if we are to apply the definition of minerals -“a mineral is an element or chemical compound that is normally crystalline and which has been formed as a result of geological processes”[4]-, Rare Earth Elements cannot be one of them[5].

None-the-less, Rare Earth Minerals is commonly defined as those minerals which contain big quantities of Rare Earth Elements[6]. According to the department of Natural Resources of Canada, among the one hundred and seventy minerals that contain Rare Earth Elements, only seventy of them have significant amounts of those elements[7].

1.3 Why are they called Rare Earth Elements?

The word “rare” does not allude to their oddness or to a shortage of them in nature –for instance, “Cerium is estimated to be the 25th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust”[8]– but to the fact that they are rarely found in pure form[9] and thus it is not usual to find them in a commercially viable concentration[10].

1.4 What it is the actual use of Rare Earth Element in the product industry?

Due to their unusual magnetic, catalyst and optical properties[11], Rare Earth Elements are extensively used. Substitutes to Rare Earth Elements exist, however so far they have proven to be less effective[12], more expensive or have an unreliable supply.  Rare Earth Elements are presented in an enormous amount of common products such as: “computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, vehicle catalytic converters, magnets or fluorescent lighting”11.

Data obtained from the US ecological survey of the US Department of Interior. Mineral Commodities 2011[13]

The Rare Elements usage

As we can appreciate in the above graphic, Rare Earth Elements are used in several different industries which produce goods that most individual consumers or industries probably use in our daily life. Therefore, sustainability and stability of Rare Earth Elements mining and extraction has become essential for the wellbeing of our economic system.

 In the next section we are going to examine the evolution overtime of the Rare Earth industry in different countries, then we will analyze in detail the current state thereof and finally we will conclude with a general overview of the main negative externalities and their repercussions in the environment and society.

2. The Rare Earth Industry

2.1 Overview of the Rare Earth Industry nowadays

The world Rare Earth industry is dominated by the Republic of China. China is by far the biggest Rare Earth producer of the world and owns the largest reserves thereof. China holds and controls almost half (55,000,000 tones14) of the Rare Earth world reserves (110,000,000 tones14). Even though the U.S. is the second largest owner of Rare Earth Metals, it controls only 12% of the total reserves (13,000,000 tones14).

Data obtained from the US ecological survey of the US Department of Interior. Mineral Commodities 2013[14]

Rare Earth production

Rare Earth reserves

 

 

 

2.2 The Stakeholders in the Rare Earth Industry

CHINA AND THE REST OF THE WORLD

An overview of the stakeholder analysis highlights the importance of China in the rare earth industry.

Restrictions of quotas and increasing delays of deliveries are signs of the control China has on the REEs (Rare Earth Element) supply for the rest of the World. China’s policies that impose quotas along with an increasing demand from the rest of the world have led to rise of REE prices outside of China’s market.

Major importers are the United States of America with more than 16k tonnes of rare earth imported in 2009[i]. It has been established in two different markets: The Chinese market and the rest of the world (ROW).The ROW has become extremely dependent of China’s rare earth elements and production (95 % of the current production). Thus if the prices in China’s market seem to be lower than the ROW’s, there may be a tendency to relocate their plants to China to benefit from the low prices. The USA believes China uses this strategy to increase foreign direct investment (FDI)[ii].

THE WTO ( world trade organization)

In 2009 The WTO received complaints from countries such as Mexico, USA, the European Union and Japan stating that China’s way of handling quotas and export duties were against international rules[iii].

In its defense, China stated that their policies were environmentally oriented and led to a better management of their resources. However, the WTO’s probe concluded that China was not complying with the global rules and required improvement from the losing party[iv].China is now appealing the court ruling and asking for each decision made by The WTO to be overturned.

China, who despite receiving pressure from the ROW, is still controlling the REEs industry and the ROW is striving to find alternatives to the Chinese productions. To reduce environmental risks, the country has improved a bit its operation procedures but there is still an enormous amount of room to improve.

 Media:

Media has the power to inform and to raise awareness among communities worldwide. In this case there is a very little attention oriented toward the issue. It’s led by a lack of concern from the individual and corporate consumers who are not aware of the consequences of rare earth mining have on the environment and their social impacts.

Businesses:

Businesses are not always clear about their business practices including their production operations (the inputs used by high-tech industries are most often hidden from the public) and justify this secrecy by the harsh competition in this sector.

NGOs:

History taught us that change takes time and this is the situation that NGOs are currently facing. They are striving to establish cooperation with businesses in order to implement sustainable processes and to reduce the negative impact of the rare earth in the environment. However, there are still huge improvements that need to be done as the number one concern of firms is often how much profit they can make.

Individual and Corporate Consumers:

Finally, consumers play an important role because, even though they are the end of the chain, they have huge decision power when choosing one brand over another when buying a new product. They also have high legitimacy as they are the ones that are going to use the final product. Therefore, consumers are one of the main stakeholders in the rare-earth industry.

2.3 Historical evolution of the Rare Earth Industry

Our analysis of the reaction of each major country using the Ethical theories:

  • Utilitarism: China thinks that the economic wealth of the majority of its population (consequence) justifies the Rare Earth industry’s procedures
  • Deontology: most of the countries decided to stop destroying the environment in spite of the short-term economic benefits

Although the discovery of the rare earth materials dates back to 1788, the use of the minerals was first patented in 1885. The purpose of the use was to produce light. In the years that followed, more rare earth materials and applications of the materials were discovered. The problem was, however to find effective ways to separate and purify the rare earth elements in order to use them. In the 1940s, chemist Frank Spedding found a method of separating the elements by using ion exchange resins, resulting in the separation process of the elements.  The new efficacy allowed the industry to really emerge, which it did in the 1950s.

Supply and suppliers

At first, South Africa was the biggest producer of rare earth, but USA caught up with them in the 1960s. In the 1980s, China started rare earth production, creating a large supply, and thereby in a large degree squeezed USA out of the market. From 2006 and onwards, China has started to reduce their output of rare earth.

 Demand

Due to the evolution of technology over the past five decades, demand for rare earth elements have, and is still, increasing. New applications of rare earth elements have been discovered on a frequent rate. An illustration of this is the use for rare earth elements in permanent magnets.

Permanent magnets are a type of magnet that produces a strong and stable magnetic field with a relatively low mass. The primary disadvantage of these magnets is their low Curie point, which is the temperature which they begin to lose their magnetism. When applied to permanent magnets, REEs mitigate the effect of a low Curie point and improve their thermal tolerance”[15]

Permanent magnets are crucial as components in wind turbines and hard drives, which both have had an increasing demand between 2000 and 2010. [1]

In 2011, China took their first formal steps to deal with the environmental issues of rare earth, by issuing their first rare earth pollution standard. [1]

2.4 Negative externalities of the rare earth industry

According to an on-line weekly UK newspaper “The Guardian[v]”, one of China’s largest and most affected rare earth mining areas is in Baotou Mongolia. Baotou was once a place where local farmers prospered by selling their produce and villagers basked in the town’s natural resources such as the ponds. It was not until the late 1950’s that Baotou Iron, a local steel company, started to exploit the Baotou area by mining rare earth.

At first the local farmers started noticing that they were not producing the same quantity and quality of product due to the toxins seeping into the ground water. However, it was not too long that any product at all became a rarity. Farmers were forced to move and find other jobs in order to survive and feed their families. Among other issues, the mining processes were emitting toxins such as sulphuric acid and coal dust and villagers began to encounter health issues such as diabetes and chest problems.  Since the rare earths are not concentrated, Baotou Iron needed to use many chemicals to separate and purify them including acid baths. When tested, the surrounding ponds where shown to have radioactive elements in them which, as we know today, can cause deadly illnesses such as cancer.  This is just one example of a town that has been devastated by the rare earth mining industry.

 A large sum of the groundwater and pond pollution created by these mines could actually be quite reduced. As most company’s main objective is to make the most profit possible the trend at one time seemed to be corporations chose to cut costs where environmental issues are concerned. This means simply ignoring what is happening to the environment around them and not preventing or lessening the environmental damage.

 According to an article[vi] written January 28th 2013, corporations are now feeling more pressure to deal with the environmental and health impacts they have created over the years. For example, Mitsubishi Chemical, a rare earth processing plant located in Malaysia was found to have caused extreme radioactive waste leading to an increase of cancers and other illnesses in the population. In order to help cease this disaster, Mitubishi Chemical is now contributing to the estimated $100 million clean-up.

 Another example is Molycorp Minerals[vii], a California based rare earth processing facility, who closed its doors over a decade ago and who has recently decided to resume business. However, before doing so, they needed to review their impacts on the environment and implement new processes that are environmentally conscious.

2.5 Problem identification and Possible Solutions

PROBLEM IDENTIFICATION

The problems created by Rare Earth Elements are many and well spread among all the actors implied directly and indirectly in its extraction. The main general problem is about sustainable development. On a global point of view, it is clear that the world can be distinctly divided in two parts. On one side we have China and on the other side we have the rest of the world or, to be more precise, we have the developed world. While the developed countries get all the benefits from Rare Earth, China pays the bill in terms of environment, economy and society. Radioactive waste and by-products cause irreversible damages to water and soil putting at risk the environmental integrity of the areas in which extraction is carried on. Environmental damages have heavy throwbacks on the economic development of local communities: agricultural and fishing activities are destroyed. This causes a fractured economic development: while mines owner benefit from huge profits, autochthone people lose their living and are forced to move. Moreover, people are forced to move not only because of the destruction of any other kind of activity but also because of health problems such as cancer and lung diseases. But what is even worse is that what happens in China allows the developed world to improve and, paradoxically, get farther in achieving sustainable development goals. First of all, these countries strongly protect their environment avoiding the extraction of Rare Earth (since they can get it from China anyways). Moreover, their economic development is in great shape thanks to the continuous technological innovation (smartphones, electric vehicles etc.) which is possible since Rare Earth is available from China. Moreover, high technology and cleaner and environmental friendly products sustain social progress, improving quality of life.

Another main obstacle that we encountered is the lack of international regulation. While western enterprises cannot produce without rare earth elements, Chinese enterprises don’t have to follow and respect any internal environmental protection law. This situation is profitable (only in an economic and profit perspective) for both western and Chinese enterprises. Therefore the internal incentives to change and improve the status quo are irrelevant. Evidently, it is necessary that a higher authority steps in.

This overview highlights the dilemmas high-tech and rare earth user industry face. They have to choose between progress and fairness, between profits and environment, between R&D expenses and exploitation of the un-ruled status quo in China.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Since the stage of the issue is at its initial life, it is really hard to realistically predict what will happen in the future. The question that we need to answer is the following: what can anyone do?

 The rare earth user companies or the industries as a whole can do a lot to improve the present situation. The first step could be setting up an EMS (Environmental Management System) to carry out an Industrial Ecology long term project. Moreover, above all on a long term strategy setting, companies should increase their research and development investments to either find a cleaner extraction process or use more efficiently rare earth substitutes. Companies could also promote the use of environmental certification of their products.

Media has a fundamental role in the development of the awareness of the issue. Giving out information and bringing up the issue at a national or international level, would make all the stakeholder aware of the problem concerning rare earth.

Shareholders have an immediate power on the company itself. Being a socially responsible investor and putting pressure on the company to fulfill environmental requirement are effective way to push the company to find a definitive and sustainable solution to the issue.

National governments and international organizations need to elaborate, approve, implement and check the application of international regulations on rare earth extraction. They could also establish standards for imported product and imported raw materials.

Citizens could look for and buy only products labeling an environmental certification. A possible educated guess is that every single stakeholder has to do its part. In fact solutions for each stakeholder are strictly related to the one for the other stakeholders. If one stakeholder fails in applying the most effective solution, the cycle will be stopped and no general solution will take place. For example, if media awareness building is not efficient enough, then citizens and buyers will not be strong enough for companies to have an incentive to change their behavior, investing more in research and certifying the environmental impact of their products. If international regulation is not implemented, it would be hard to monitor the extraction condition in China.

Bibliography

MARC HUMPHRIES. Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain. CRS Report for Congress June 8, 2012

PDF article:       http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2002/fs087-02/fs087-02.pdf (page consulted on the 12th of March)

GORDON B. HAXEL, JAMES B. HEDRICK, AND GRETA J. ORRIS. Critical Resources for High Technology. Rare Earth Elements. United States Geological Survey (USGS). USGS Fact Sheet 087-02. 2002

PDF article:         http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41347.pdf (page consulted on the 12th of March)

AIMAN GOLD COORPORATION. Rare Earth Elements 101. Rare Earth Elements (REE) Explained.  April 2012

PDF article:         http://www.iamgold.com/files/REE101_April_2012.pdf (page consulted on the 12th of March)

HATCH, GARETH. Rare-Earth Terminology – A Quick Refresher on The Basics. Technology Metal Research. December 11, 2012

Web link:            http://www.techmetalsresearch.com/2012/12/rare-earth-terminology-a-quick-refresher-on-the-basics/ (page consulted on the 12th of March)

ERNEST H. NICKEL. Definition of a mineral. The Mineralogical, Inc. March 17, 1995.

PDF article:         http://www.minersoc.org/pages/Archive-MM/Volume_59/59-397-767.pdf (page consulted on the 13th of March)

NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA. Rare Earth Minerals and Metals Processing R&D. Julie 07, 2012.

Web link:            http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/minerals-metals/technology/4475 (page consulted on the 13th of March)

READE ADVANCED MATERIALS Rare Earth Primary Product Description Technology Specialty Chemical Resources . Rare Earth Products from READE.

Web link:            http://goo.gl/pg5fJ (page consulted on the 13th of March)

MCLENDON, RUSSELL. What are rare earth metals? Mother Nature Network (MNN). June 22, 2011

Web link:            http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/translating-uncle-sam/stories/what-are-rare-earth-metals (page consulted on the 13th of March)

EXTAVOUR, MARCIUS. Rare Earth: Demand, uncertain supply. OPN Optics & Photonics News August, 2011.

PDF article          http://www.osa-opn.org/opn/media/Images/PDFs/13140_26581_113894.pdf?ext=.pdf (page consulted on the 13th of March)

JUSTIN, PAUL and CAMPBELL, GWENETTE. Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impacts. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA Document-908R11003). August 15, 2011.

PDF Report        http://www.epa.gov/region8/mining/ReportOnRareEarthElements.pdf (page consulted on the 13th of March)

US DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR. Mineral Commodities. US Ecological Survey. 2011

PDF Report:       http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2011/mcs2011.pdf (page consulted on the 14th of March)

US DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR. Mineral Commodities. US Ecological Survey. 2013

PDF Report:       http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2013/mcs2013.pdf (page consulted on the 15th of March)

References


[1] GORDON B. HAXEL, JAMES B. HEDRICK, AND GRETA J. ORRIS. Critical Resources for High Technology. Rare Earth Elements. United States Geological Survey (USGS). USGS Fact Sheet 087-02. 2002. Page 1

[2] AIMAN GOLD COORPORATION. Rare Earth Elements 101. Rare Earth Elements (REE) Explained.  April 2012. Page 3

[3] HUMPHRIES, MARC. Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain. CRS Report for Congress June 8, 2012. Page 2

[4] ERNEST H. NICKEL. Definition of a mineral. The Mineralogical, Inc. March 17, 1995.

[5] HATCH, GARETH. Rare-Earth Terminology – A Quick Refresher on The Basics. Technology Metal Research. December 11, 2012.

[6] READE ADVANCED MATERIALS Technology Specialty Chemical Resources . Rare Earth Products from READE. Rare Earth Primary Product Description

[7] NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA. Rare Earth Minerals and Metals Processing R&D. Julie 07, 2012.

[8] EXTAVOUR, MARCIUS. Rare Earth: Demand, uncertain supply. OPN Optics & Photonics News August, 2011. Page 44

[9] MCLENDON, RUSSELL. What are rare earth metals?. Mother Nature Network (MNN). June 22, 2011

[10] AIMAN GOLD COORPORATION. Rare Earth Elements 101. Rare Earth Elements (REE) Explained.  April 2012. Page 3

[11] JUSTIN, PAUL and CAMPBELL, GWENETTE. Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impacts. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA Document-908R11003). August 15, 2011. Page 4

[12] US DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR. Mineral Commodities. Rare Earth. United States Ecological and Geological Survey. January 2011. Page 129

[13] US DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR. Mineral Commodities. Rare Earth. United States Ecological and Geological Survey. January 2011. Page 128

[14] US DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR. Mineral Commodities. Rare Earth. United States Ecological and Geological Survey. January 2013. Page 129


[i] EPA 600/R-12/572 | December 2012 | http://www.epa.gov/ord

[ii]

EPA 600/R-12/572 | December 2012 | http://www.epa.gov/ord

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