«China’s Rare Earth Elements Industry: What Can the West Learn? By Cindy Hurst March 2010 Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) The ...»
China’s Rare Earth Elements Industry:
What Can the West Learn?
By Cindy Hurst
Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS)
The Institute for the Analysis of Global Security is a Washington based non-profit think
tank dedicated to research and public debate on issues related to energy security.
IAGS seeks to promote public awareness to the strong impact energy has on the world
economy and security and to the myriad of technological and policy solutions that could help nations strengthen their energy security.
WWW.IAGS.ORG Cindy Hurst is an analyst for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS.
The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Introduction China controls approximately 97 percent of the world's rare earth element market. These elements, which are not widely known because they are so low on the production chain, are critical to hundreds of high tech applications, many of which define our modern way of life. Without rare earth elements, much of the world's modern technology would be vastly different and many applications would not be possible. For one thing, we would not have the advantage of smaller sized technology, such as the cell phone and laptop computer, without the use of rare earth elements. Rare earth elements are also essential for the defense industry and are found in cruise missiles, precision guided munitions, radar systems and reactive armor. They are also key to the emergence of green technology such as the new generation of wind powered turbines and plug-in hybrid vehicles, as well as to oil refineries, where they act as a catalyst. (Note: for more in-depth information on the specific uses of rare earth elements, refer to Appendix A).
Over the past few years, China has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism over its monopoly of the rare earth industry and for gradually reducing export quotas of these resources. However, China is faced with its own internal issues that, if not addressed, could soon stress the country's rare earth industry.
This paper is designed to give the reader a better understanding of what rare earth elements are and their importance to society in general and to U.S.
defense and energy policy in particular. It will also explore the history of rare earth elements and China's current monopoly of the industry, including possible repercussions and strategic implications if rare earth elements supply were to be disrupted.
Definition of Rare Earth Elements According to the U.S. Geological Survey, rare earth elements comprise those elements that are part of the family of lanthanides on the periodic table with atomic numbers 57-71. Scandium (atomic number 21) and yttrium (atomic number 39) are grouped with the lanthanide family because of their similar properties.1 Rare earth elements are separated into two categories, light rare earths and heavy rare earths. The light rare earth elements are lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, and samarium (atomic numbers 57-62), and they are more abundant than heavy ones. The heavy rare earth elements (atomic numbers 64-71 plus yttrium, atomic number 39) are not as predominant as light
rare earths and are generally used in high tech applications.2 For example:
Erbium is used for fiber optics in communications. Europium and Terbium are used as phosphors. Gadolinium is used for in MRIs.
The term rare earth is actually a misnomer. They are not rare at all, being found in low concentrations throughout the Earth’s crust, and in higher concentrations in numerous minerals. Rare earth elements can be found in James B. Hedrick, “Rare-earth Metal Prices in the USA ca. 1960 to 1994,” Journal of Alloys and Compounds, 250, (1997): 471.
The heavy rare earth elements sometimes will include europium.
almost all massive rock formations. However, their concentrations range from ten to a few hundred parts per million by weight. Therefore, finding them where they can be economically mined and processed presents a real challenge.
Rare earth elements can be found in a variety of minerals, but the most abundant rare earth elements are found primarily in bastnaesite and monazite.
Bastnaesite typically contains light rare earths and a small amount of the heavies, while monazite also contains mostly the light, but the fraction of the heavy rare earths is two to three times larger. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, bastnaesite deposits in China and the U.S. make up the largest percentage of economic rare earth resources. Monazite deposits, found in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the U.S. make up the second largest segment. Other examples of minerals known to contain rare earth elements include apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phoshporites, rare-earth-bearing (ion absorption) clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime.3 Producing Rare Earth Oxides: No Small Task A better appreciation of rare earth elements and the difficulty in acquiring them is attained by examining how they are processed. Dr. John Burba, Chief Technology Officer at Molycorp Minerals, the company that runs the only rare earth mining operation in the U.S., pointed out that, “a lot of people don’t quite understand why rare earth operations are different (from other mining operations).”4 Mining gold, for example, is a much simpler procedure than mining rare earth elements. One method in processing gold ore, simply put, is to mix the ore with sodium cyanide. The gold is then leached right out.
Rare earth elements are far more complicated and costly to extract. (See Diagram 1 below) First, ore containing minerals (for this example, we will look at bastnaesite), is taken out of the ground using normal mining procedures. The bastnaesite must then be removed from the ore, which generally contains a number of other minerals of little value. The bastnaesite is removed by crushing the ore into gravel size, then placing the crushed ore into a grinding mill. Once the ore is ground down through a mill into a fine sand or silt the different mineral grains become separated from each other. The sand or silt is then further processed to separate the bastnaesite from the other nonessential minerals. This is accomplished by running the mixture through a floatation process. During the floatation process an agent is added and air bubbles come up through the bottom of the tank. Bastnaesite sticks to those bubbles and floats to the top of the tank as a froth, where it is then scraped off.
Mineral Commodity Summaries 2009, U.S. Geological Survey, Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Government Printing Office, 2009), 131.
John Burba, interview by author, Mountain Pass, California, 8 July 2009.
The bastnaesite contains the rare earth elements, which must be further separated into their respective pure forms in a separation plant, using acid and various solvent extraction separation steps. Each element has its own unique extraction steps and chemical processes and at times, these elements will require reprocessing to achieve the ideal purity. Once the elements are separated out, they are in the form of oxides, which can be dried, stored, and shipped for further processing into metals. The metals can be further processed into alloys and used for other applications such as the neodymium-iron-boron magnet. These alloys and magnets are then assembled into hundreds of high tech applications. In total, the process takes approximately 10 days from the
point when the ore is taken out of the ground to the point at which the rare earth oxides are actually produced. The mining and processing of rare earth elements, if not carefully controlled, can create environmental hazards. This has happened in China.
China Steps Up Efforts in the Academic World Since the first discovery of rare earth elements, by Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius, a Swedish army officer, in 1787, there has been a great deal of interest in their chemical properties and potential uses. One could argue that the study of rare earth elements has mirrored the industry. Until the 1970s the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California was once the largest rare earth supplier in the world. During that time, American students and professors were greatly interested in learning about the properties of these unique materials.
Their efforts led to ground breaking uses for rare earth elements both commercially and militarily. Then, as China began to gain a foothold in the industry, U.S. interest seems to have waned, not due to a lack of resources, but to what Professor Karl Gschneidner, Jr., says is a student tendency to gravitate more toward “what’s hot.” There they can make the most impact both as students and later in their careers. As needs arise for new technologies, such as developing advanced biofuels, student interest tends to shift, remaining on top of the latest trends.
In China things are vastly different. There is a great amount of interest in both the industry and the academics of rare earths elements. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the graduate students who come to study at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames National Laboratory are from China and each time a visiting student returns to China, he or she is replaced by another Chinese visiting student.
China has long lagged behind the U.S. technologically. However, as of the early 1990s, China’s vast rare earth resources have propelled the country into the number one position in the industry. Hence, it is only fitting that Chinese student interest follow suit. The study of rare earth elements in China is still new and exciting. Additionally, China has set out on an expansive effort to increase its overall technological innovation, effort which includes the use of rare earth elements. China’s academic focus on rare earth elements could one day give the country a decisive advantage over technological innovation.
China first began its push for domestic innovation during the 1980’s. Two programs came about as a result of China’s desire to become a world leader in high-tech innovation. In March 1986, three Chinese scientists jointly proposed a plan that would accelerate the country’s high-tech development. Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader at the time, approved the National High Technology Research and Development Program, namely Program 863. According to China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, the objective of the program is to “gain a foothold in the world arena; to strive to achieve breakthroughs in key technical fields that concern the national economic lifeline and national security; and to achieve ‘leapfrog’ development in key high-tech fields in which China enjoys relative advantages or should take strategic positions in order to provide high-tech support to fulfill strategic objectives in the implementation of the third step of China’s modernization process.”5 Rare earth elements are an important strategic resource in which China has a considerable advantage due to the massive reserves in the country. Therefore, a great deal of money has gone toward researching rare earths. Program 863 is mainly meant to narrow the gap in technology between the developed world and China, which still lags behind in technological innovation, although progress is being made.
Program 863 focuses on biotechnology, space, information, laser, automation, energy, and new materials. It covers both military and civilian Ministry of Science & Technology of the PRC, available from Internet;
http://www.most.gov.cn/eng, accessed 4 November 2009.
There are other programs as well, such as the Nature Science Foundation of China (NFSC), which generally lasts three years. However, no other program is as significant to China’s technological innovation, including the research and development of rare earth elements, as Programs 863 and 973.
One cannot discuss the academics of rare earth elements in China without talking about Professor Xu Guangxian, who, in 2009, at the age of 89, won the 5 million yuan ($730,000) State Supreme Science and Technology prize, China’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize. Xu was the second chemist ever to receive the prize.7 Xu, considered the father of Chinese rare earth chemistry, persisted in his academic research despite numerous political setbacks and frustrations. China credits Xu with paving the way for the country to become the world’s primary exporter of rare earth elements. Xu attended Columbia University, in the U.S., from 1946 to 1951, where he received a Ph.D. in chemistry. After the Korean War broke out, Xu returned to China, and was hired as an associate professor at Peking University. At first, he researched coordination chemistry, focusing on metal extraction. In 1956, he is said to have switched his focus to radiation chemistry, supporting China’s efforts to develop atomic bombs. His work focused mostly on the extraction of nuclear fuels. After the Cultural Revolution began in “PRC Acquisition of U.S. Technology,” U.S. Government Printing Office, June 14, 1999.
Hepeng Jia and Lihui Di, “Xu Guangxian: A Chemical Life,” Royal Society of Chemistry, March 25, 2009, http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/News/2009/March/25030902.asp.
1966, Xu’s department stopped its atomic research and he turned his focus to theoretical research. Three years later, however, he, and his wife Gao Xiaoxia, were accused of being spies for the former Kuomintang government. Xu and Gao were held in a labor camp until 1972, after which time Xu returned to Peking University. Xu then began to study the extraction of praseodymium from rare earth ores as laser material.8 It was during this time that Xu made his greatest breakthrough. He applied his previous research in extracting isotopes of uranium to rare earth extraction and succeeded.
In the early 1990s, Xu, who chaired the chemistry sector of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, launched several research programs in rare earths. By 1999 he was still not satisfied with China’s progress, pointing out that the country had failed to lead research on the application of rare earth metals in electronic parts and other high-tech industries. Xu pushed hard to further the rare earth industry.9 Today, Xu is retired, but he continues to push for further progress in the rare earth industry.