China's doomed attempt to hold the world to ransom
Or why your job won't be following the rare earth trail
The Chinese government is trying to corner the rare earths market and that isn't good news for the tech business. Those with good memories of Chemistry O Level will know what the rare earths are: the funny little line of elements from Lanthanum to Lutetium at the bottom of the periodic table, along with Yttrium and Scandium, which we usually add to the list.
The reason we like them in the tech business is because they're what enables us to make a lot of this tech stuff that is the business. You can't run fibre optic cables without your Erbium repeaters, Europium, Terbium and Yttrium are all used to make the coloured dots in CRTs, the lens on your camera phone is 25 per cent Lanthanum oxide (yes, really, glass is made of metal oxides) and without Neodimium and Dysprosium we'd not have permanent magnets: no hard drives nor iPod headphones.
Those last two we could make out of Samarium, but that's another rare earth, and in the absence of that we'd have to go back to AlNiCo which is what PDP 11 drives used. 20 kilos for a few megabytes of storage and a right bugger to plug in your ear.
The reason we like the rare earths so much for all of these things is that while they're all chemically very similar, they have very different reactions to things like light, electricity and magnetism. For example, Lutetium is magneto-electric, meaning that a change in a magnetic field will produce a change in current: just as piezo-electric materials produce a change in response to a change in mechanical stress.
That is very useful if you want to convert changes in a magnetic field into variations in current, which you can then use to drive a cathode ray tube. We do that in an MRI machine, which is why at the heart of one is a great big Lutetium oxide crystal. Your fact of the day is that of around 2,200 kg of lutetium used globally a year, 2,000 kg is used at one factory in Texas to make those crystals.
The chemical similarity comes from them all having the same number of electrons in their outer shell: chemistry is really all about electrons in the outer shell. The differences come from the different numbers of electrons in the inner shells and of protons and neutrons in the nucleus. That's what gives us all the interesting properties which the electronics and tech industries exploit. Indeed, they are what make many of the things the industries do possible at all.
As you would predict, given very similar chemistries you never actually find these elements alone. They're always all there in varying proportions. Minerals like Monazite and Bentonite are the usual sources but to get just the Lutetium out, for example, you end up having to purify them all out.
Some rare earth metals, yesterday
In fact, this is how some of the rarer ones were discovered in the first place. Bash up your ore in acid and pour it into a long column of crushed stone (think calcium carbonate here). As the different elements have different atomic weights, they will go further down the column and, by chance, they also have different colours at this stage. You end up with something that looks like a straw made of rock with different colour bands in it. Each band is one of the rare earths.
The longer you make your column the more bands you'll get: big wide ones for relatively common elements like Yttrium and Lanthanum, very narrow ones for rarities like Lutetium. The last few rare earths were found by doing exactly this - making the columns longer and counting the number of coloured bands. Now chop up your straw along the dividing lines and dissolve away the rock and you've successfully separated them all.
Rare Earths - Actually, they're not that rare...
OK, we don't do that any more. We use ion exchange resins instead, but it is still true that we get all of them - apart from Scandium, which is a rather different little beastie - from the same ore. In fact, we tend to get them not just from the same ore, but from the same mine: Bautou in Inner Mongolia (that's the Chinese part, not the independent country).
And that's where our problems really start. Over the past couple of decades China has been cracking down on small mines, usually in the name of environmental policy. That even may have been the real reason, as rare earth mines can be messy things. The outcome is that now 95 per cent of the earth's supply comes from this one mining complex and the Chinese Government has just announced export restrictions.
There always have been such restrictions, but in the past they were more about making sure the export taxes were paid. Now there's a definite declared aim to make sure that much of the processing and the manufacturing into finished goods is done in China. No more shipping out mixed rare earth oxides and no more rare earths. They've got to be turned into phosphors, magnets, batteries and the like inside China.
If Bautou were the only possible source, rather than the only source currently operating, then we'd all just have to shut up and deal with it. We would also see a lot of high tech manufacturing end up in China, rather than the lower level assembly of parts made elsewhere that we actually have today. However, there's two things which mean that this won't in fact happen.
The first is that rare earths aren't that rare. They're certainly difficult to process, but there are actually plenty of them around. Molycorp has a currently-closed mine in California which could produce 15 per cent or so of world demand, if only they get get the environmental permit to reopen. There are also a couple of hot prospect mines in Australia.
The second reason is the much larger mistake that everyone who tries to corner a market always makes: the assumption that technology is static.
At any one time, there are any number of people looking at, testing, investigating, alternative methods of doing things. I'm one of those who has been looking at different sources of rare earths: I spent a considerable chunk of change checking whether they could be extracted from the waste of the aluminium-making process. The answer is technically yes, but economically the case is uncertain. There's a Professor in Leeds who has done the same with the wastes of the titanium industry - not the whizzo metal stuff but the titanium oxide used to make white paint white. As you might imagine, it's quite a large industry. Either of these two would provide 20 per cent of world usage handily.
Whether I and the professor (and any number of others) turn out to be wastrels or clear sighted visionaries depends upon what happens in China to some extent. If they don't go ahead with export restrictions, we might not find the money to build our extraction methods. If they do then we might. And tenuously perched on the end of that might is that we might make a profit doing so. Hurrah! How wonderful for my pension etc.
But that isn't the real point here, that being that attempts to restrict access to any one resource will simply lead to people developing technologies that mean we don't need access to that resource. If China restricts access to raw rare earths this won't, despite what they think, mean that all the processing of rare earths into useful things will move to China. It will just mean that people will work out ways of getting rare earths that don't come from China.
The good news for me is that I've already got a workable plan on my desk to do just that. The good news for all of you in the tech and electronics industries is that I'm not the only one: your jobs are not going to be shipped to Shanghai, for those who try to corner markets always make the very same mistake.
They assume that technology is static and it just ain't. ®