Yttrium, Medium-Rare

A few days ago, someone asked why I still buy paper books. Mostly cause I look at the screen too much as it is, but it also occurs to me that my books will be around if one day the power goes away, or if net neutrality disappears and all these devices aren’t worth using anymore.

Anyway, back in 2011, Michael Maeillo (dagblog’s wrasslin’ Destor) praised a Nick Kristof piece, We’re Rich in Nature:

Republicans have proposed opening more than 50 million acres of federal lands to logging, grazing and other uses. They argue that this would allow responsible “multiple use” of lands now locked up as wilderness. Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary under President Bill Clinton, has described the Republican bill as “the most radical, overreaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of our public land laws that has been proposed in my lifetime.” He said it would be “nothing more than a giveaway of our great outdoors.”

Back at dagblog, flowerchild commented:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011, Kennecott Mining is scheduled to blow a hole in the base of Eagle Rock in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This hole will become the entrance to a sulfide mine that is expected to produce billions of dollars worth of nickel and rare earth minerals. This mine is expected to play out in five years or less. Then, Rio Tinto, the Chinese company with a horrendous human and environmental abuse reputation and who owns Kennecott ,will pull out, taking what few local jobs it provided (most of the high-paying mining jobs are filled by people already employed by Rio Tinto and relocated to the new mines) with them when they go.

A month later, in Your Prius’ Deepest, Darkest Secret for Mother Jones, Kiera Butler warned us about the nasty process of refining rare earths, and that due to export control by China, the US and other countries were starting mines, such as Molycorp’s Mountain Pass in California’s Mojave desert.

… Molycorp will also have to deal with a whole lot of waste. Rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which, if not stored securely, can leach into groundwater or escape into the air as dust. The refining process requires huge amounts of harsh acids, which also have to be disposed of safely. Molycorp claims that its new operations are leak-proof, but the company’s ambitious plans have raised a few eyebrows among environmentalists, since the site has a history of spills.

Time passes ….

Less than two weeks ago, 2014, Jan 3rd, one Wall Street Journal writer, Chuin-Wei Yap, warned us about China again consolidating rare earths, then on Jan 8th, another writer, Joseph Sternberg, said it was all good. These are subscription pieces, but somehow I was able to read them:

China Moves to Tighten Rare-Earths Control, Pave Way for Consolidation

The consolidation reinforces signals that China is preparing to tighten global supply of the metals. In December, the Ministry of Commerce said it would trim the initial batch of its 2014 export quota for the first time in two years, though the final quota will be confirmed only in July.

[But] Rare-earths prices are still weak. … Twice in the past three years Baotou suspended rare-earths production, but prices kept sliding. Weaker global demand for rare earths, the development of new sources and greater efficiency in their use have contributed to a sharp price drop, following the even more dramatic price surge of three years ago.

How the Great Rare-Earth Metals Crisis Vanished

There was a time, not so long ago, when the world feared China was going to use its dominance of the global rare-earth-element industry to crush Western economies and militaries in a strategic vise. Those were the days. Recent developments highlight how wrong those alarmist predictions were. …

A Pentagon report leaked last month noted that reliance on Chinese rare-earth metals, while still high, is declining. New supplies for most rare-earths are coming online, as uncertainty over China’s reliability and a period of higher prices stimulated investment in new mining projects elsewhere. Greenland and Russia both have opened new tracts to rare-earths exploration in the past year. China’s share of global production now is down to as low as 80% from 95% in 2010.

By 2014, Jan 12th, in, America is Finally Waking Up to the Fact that China Controls Our Military’s Future, Matt DiLallo of Motley Fool countered that :

Unfortunately, there is still one rare earth to worry about. Production of yttrium isn’t expected to keep pace with U.S. military demand in the coming years, as it’s a particularly scarce element. The “heavy” element is used in precision lasers and rocket stabilizers. At the current rate, the U.S. won’t be able to meet its yttrium demand until about 2019. Overall, the good news in all of this is that America is waking up to the fact that we can’t rely on China to supply our nation with these important elements. We are taking steps forward to secure our supply. In doing so, we’ll ensure the security of our nation as well.

BTW, Talking Points Memo has a subscriber-only article, Inside The Messy Global Race for the Metals That Power Your iPhone.

If you’re a TPMPrime subscriber, [I’m not] don’t miss our latest Prime Longform on the global battle for ‘rare earths’, the critical metals that run your iPhone, your Android, your hybrid car and most things we associate with the high tech and post-fossil fuel world. They’re pricey, incredibly messy to get out of the ground, and almost all the global supply is mined in China. It’s a fascinating story that brings together tech, environmental threat and a new 21st ‘Great Game’ among the global powers to secure reliable supplies of the metals. It’s a great read. I hope you enjoy it.


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