Rare Earths: An Ephemeral Golden Goose With a Perpetual Burden

Rare Earths: An Ephemeral Golden Goose With a Perpetual Burden

What are Rare Earths?

Rare Earths are not called rare because they are scarce but because of their non-uniform distribution on the surface of the planet and the manner in which they are found. Metals are always found in ores, which are simply minerals that contain a high amount of the metal concerned. Some examples of ores are Cassiterite, an ore of Tin, and Cinnabar, an ore of Mercury.

In the case of the rare earths, the concentration in their ores is extremely low and hence, the method of extraction and separation of these rare earths is difficult, expensive and detrimental. Usually, acid baths that contain sodium pyrophosphate, sodium bisulfate, sulfuric acid, etc. are used to leach these metals out of their ores.

The periodic table that we all dreaded as a student has very conveniently grouped the rare earths in a different row called the lanthanides with the exception of Scandium, Yttrium, and Lanthanum.

Over the years, China has been producing more than 90 percent of the world’s rare earths and is home to 36 percent of the total rare earths found on the planet. Dysprosium (Dy), Europium (Eu), Terbium (Tb), Thulium (Tm), Scandium (Sc), Yttrium (Y), etc. are some of these metals and they are widely used in high-tech gadgets, computers, wind turbines, batteries for electric cars, carbon lighting applications like studio lights and projectors, refining crude oil, aircraft engines, radars, visors to protect welders and glass makers, X-ray and MRI scanning systems, and also in television screens, phones, and computers. So, they are everywhere. Everything that we use in our daily lives has them. Its a secret ingredient for every scientific wonder that will power our future.

China’s Secret Strength

China discovered its first rare earth deposits in 1927 and began small scale production by 1958. Major cities where the deposits were found were Shandong, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Jianxi, Guangdong, Fujian, Hunan, and Guangxi.

Xu Guangxian, a Chinese chemist is said to be the Father of the Chinese Rare Earth industry because of his valuable contribution to the development of extraction and separation techniques. In 1980, the Chinese Society of Rare Earths was established and in 1985 the China Rare Earth Information Centre came up. The setting up of these institutions meant that the government planned to start the metal-earth industry in full throttle. The United States, Australia, Russia, Canada, India, South Africa, and Southeast Asia also have rare earth reserves but because of cheap labor and strategic factory locations, China produces in abundance. Factories are located close to reserves which means there is a continuous supply of raw materials, low transportation cost and hence, an increase in efficiency. 

The pathetic working conditions of laborers at the site of a rare-earth mine in Jiangxi province, China, on Oct. 20, 2010. (Jie Zhao / Corbis via Getty Images)

An Instrument of International Influence

In 1990, China declared rare earths as ‘protected and strategic goods’ and tightened export regulations. Because the world depended heavily on China for these metals, they began using this to their advantage so that they can obtain political gain and exhibit power. During the maritime dispute with Japan, China reduced its export to Japan by 40 percent. It recently did the same with the United States when Donald Trump increased tariffs on Chinese imports. Subsequently, the US had to exempt rare earths from the tariffs but China imposed a 25 percent tariff on rare earth imports from the US instead. Many mining companies in the States closed down because of the abundant supply of Chinese metals, expensive labor costs, and stringent environmental laws. In 2018, China produced 120,000 metric tonnes of rare earths whereas the US could only produce 15,000 metric tonnes.

China also obtained exclusive mining rights in Africa (Congo and Kenya) in exchange for financial aid for their infrastructure projects. They already invested 666 USD for a data center and a highway. They are now eyeing Greenland as well.

India realized its potential as a rare earth producer quite early and set up  Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL) in 1950. Through IREL, India planned to develop indigenous methods and capabilities of production. In 1962, it was nationalized and came under the ambit of the Department Atomic Energy. But IREL could not keep up to its vision and limited itself to the production of common minerals instead.

Rare Earths Deposits in India

Rare Earth deposites in India

India is the 5th largest reserve of these minerals with its deposits spread over the states of Kerala, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, West Bengal, and the North-Eastern states. If these deposits are revived then it can generate a turnover of 90,000 crore rupees (12 billion USD) and net capital employment of 121,000 crore rupees (16 billion USD). So, the scope for the rare earth industry is very high in the case of India and can very well be a huge boost in India’s road to self-reliance.

In 2011-12, India accelerated its rare earth production by collaboration with Japanese firm Toyota Tsusho and set up a joint venture called Toyotsu Rare Earths India in Andhra Pradesh to produce rare earths like neodymium, lanthanum, and cerium. But this too failed due to many factors like cumbersome environmental clearances, inefficient license issuance, etc. 

However, again in 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed a deal to produce rare earths in India and export it to Japan. This was to curb Japan’s dependency on China. On the other hand, the Industrial Development Corporation of Orissa Limited (IDCOL) and Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL) signed an MoU that aims to set up a mineral separation plant in the Ganjam district of Odisha where Beach Sand mining and mineral processing will be undertaken to produce Sillimanite, Limonite, Zircon, Garnet, Monazite, and Rutile. Also, there is a subsidiary of Japan’s Toyota Tsusho Corporation operating at Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, which is in production. Recently, IREL sought clearance for rare earths mining in the coastal sands at Brahmagiri across 2,500 hectares. India and Japan also proposed to explore Afghanistan and Kazakhstan as potential mineral reserves and India’s good political and diplomatic relations with Afghanistan are expected to benefit this regard.

How much of this has actually taken shape is still not very clear but the intention is vivid. India needs to bridge the gap between investors and researchers and set up coordination between them to ensure better and sustainable methods of extraction and refining so that the industry can run smoothly for a long time.

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Environmental Aspect

It was in May 2019, when Xi Jin Ping visited Guangzhou where he discussed ways in which mining could be done in an environment-friendly manner. This is because the locals in China had started protesting against the government and this attracted international attention. 

The wastewater ponds outside the processing factories were a result of the accumulation of toxic chemicals that were used in the refining and extraction process of the metals. In some regions, the ponds were high atop hills and once they were filled they resulted in landslides and subsequently flowed into the rivers of the region. The cases where the ponds were located in the plain areas, the water seeped into the ground very quickly, and the toxic chemicals mixed with the drinking water. In some places, these sludge pools were large enough to be visible from the satellite. As a result; cases of cancer, heart ailments, and skin diseases increased rapidly. Villages came to be called cancer villages, such is the magnitude of the effect. Since the water containing hydrogen fluoride (HF), sulfuric acid (H2So4), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and Ammonia (NH3) seeped into the cultivation lands, the fruits produced in those lands were spoilt and smelled awful, cattle and crops also started dying. The villagers felt deceived and protested carrying placards that read “Mountains of gold and silver are not as good as mountains of blue and green”.  In some regions, people stopped sending their kids to school saying, “We don’t even have safe soil and water. What is the point of going to school?”. This is true because one needs to be healthy in order to go to school and work. The poor felt used and neglected at the same time. They were of the view that if China is such a strong country then it should support and protect the weak, not ask them to sacrifice instead. 

Many foreign journalists wanted to talk to the villagers but they were not allowed to. Whether the company is privately owned or property of the government, the police always protect them and threatens the villagers instead. Despite it all, the presence of environmentally conscious individuals and a few daring journalists, the news has made headlines across the world and the Chinese government is now thinking of ways to amend this. However, it is not an easy process anymore. The damage is long-lasting and the cure is expensive. 

Ma Jun, a leading Chinese environmentalist expressed his fears that other countries might suffer the same fate if they decide to follow China’s pattern of production.

Hence, instead of jumping on the same wagon to chase this golden goose, it will be wiser to learn from China’s mistakes and negligence and adopt ways to draw benefits from rare earths but not at the cost of the countrymen. What the Chinese perceived as their one-stop solution to unlimited economic growth is now becoming a perpetual burden for them as they are facing far larger and deeply rooted aftermaths.

Abandoned plastic-lined wastewater pools containing high levels of the chemicals used to separate rare earth minerals, in Longnan county (Cr. MICHAEL STANDAERT/YALE E360)

Produce, but Sustainably

  • Agree to bear the cost

If we are to look at it like any traded commodity it is nothing but buying and selling of a product that is creating a problem here. Since the material is very much required in the manufacturing of a variety of products including instruments of green energy itself, it can’t be done away with easily. Hence, all countries which need these materials should prepare to bear the environmental costs. There should be a standardized environmental price or tax levied on these products which can be exclusively used for the restoration of the environment. China should decrease its profit margin and focus more on cleaning the environment or else they will lose the faith of their own people and natural hazards like floods and landslides will become a part of their daily life. In a way, they are spending all the money to combat these disasters that they earned as a result of the very cause of these disasters. Already the situation is out of hand in China because recovery of the environment will now take up to 100 years or more. 

Many foreign mining companies send their ores for cleaning to China because the extraction process is cheap and the environmental laws are relaxed. These are the same countries that oppose the dumping of sludge but at the same time shy away from paying away that extra bit of money to avoid that.

  • Research and Development

Research must focus on finding alternatives to rare earths and environment-friendly extraction and refining techniques. Scientists are experimenting using bacteria and other less harmful chemicals to extract the minerals. Harvard University is using mild acidic solutions to separate minerals. These do not harm the environment as much and are easy to treat. Purdue University is studying clean and low-cost methods that can be used to remove rare earths from waste coal ash that needs to be recycled. Rich countries must invest in new technologies and research in order to decrease their dependence on exhaustible resources.

  • Universal mining laws

A standard set of mining laws that protect the environment must be followed all over the world. If not, that country shall not be allowed to trade the minerals at all. This should be done so that the extraction of minerals can be done sustainably.

In these rapidly changing times, the world needs visionaries. The human species is on the brink of extinction. The environment will present us with more severe challenges in response to all the atrocities men have committed towards it and if we do not plan our actions with a vision of at least the coming hundred years we might as well consider ourselves to have reached a point of no return. Hence, countries must be careful and bank on resources like the rare earths with proper precautions in place so that it does not simply remain a source of ephemeral gain that leaves us with irreversible effects.

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