China flexes its rare earths muscle China will dictate the price - if they make them available to us at all, while Congress sleeps; regulation creeps, and our military weeps!
Eric LaMont Gregory
The price of rare earth metals used in lasers and plasma televisions have doubled in the last two weeks as China tightens control of mining, production and exports. 97 percent of the 17 elements known as rare earths come from China, and China is flexing its rare earths muscle by cutting exports, boosting prices and sparking concern among its users including the US Military.
All of the rare earth elements are found in group 3 of the periodic table: they include the elements Scandium; Yttrium; Lanthanum; Cerium; Praseodymium; Neodymium; Promethium; Samarium; Europium; Gadolinium; Terbium; Dysprosium; Holmium; Erbium; Thulium; Ytterbium; Lutetium.
Although this crisis has been brewing for several years, however only recently has the US Congress introduced bills, HR 6160 and SB3521, to address the impact a shortage of these materials will have on our economy and our military preparedness.
Bills do not produce rare earths, mining operations produce rare earths. And, if we start mining operations now it will several years before we could produce a fraction of our current demand. In 1984 the US was the larest producer of rare earth metals mostly from California mining operations. Now we produce almost none, resulting from regulation and the allure of off shore is cheaper in terms of costs and environmental impact strategies of business and government leaders.
However, if government had agreed to subsidise rare earth production in the US neither the environmental impact or its cheaper abroad arguments would have held sway.
The cost of just one of the rare earths, dysprosium oxide, a key ingredient in magnets, lasers, as well as nuclear reactors, has risen from $700 to $1,470 a kilogram since the beginning of June of this year. The composite price of eight rare earths has surged to $203.60 a kilogram on June 13, from $92.84 in March 2011, and from $11.59 in 2007.
The price of every device that uses a battery is about to rise and rather dramatically, as producers pass the increased costs of manufacturing on to consumers.
Rare earths are also used in cars and defense applications. In fact, 20 to 25 pounds of rare earth elements are found in each and every hybrid car manufactured. Rare earth metals are used in other high tech goods such as mobile phone handsets, wind turbines and weapons guidance systems, as well as, in laptops, flat-screen TVs, and for medical equipment, such as MRI scans.
How did we arrive at this juncture?
All problems of this magnitude are the result of a number of very bad decisions.
Perhaps now, our state legislature will understand why the Ohio Academy of Sciences argued for the use of the word 'mastery' of sciences in education rather than setting the standard to a mere 'understanding' of science.
The difference is that our economic development as well as our research and development, is being driven by those who understand that we need rare earths but have not mastered the fact that you have to actually have them, to use them.
On the one hand, the allure of cheap materials from China, has left us wanting once again. On the other hand, the relentless pursuit by the EPA to rid America of every industry in which we might get our hands dirty, or mining operations that might leave an often remote mining site that has to be cleaned-up.
The combination of the allure of cheap materials, a lack of mastery in the sciences, and a relentless EPA pursuit of a sanistised America, has left us in a position where our access to critical materials are at risk, although our military has for sometime warned of this impending shortfall.
The Congress of the United States is charged with maintaining our armies and navies, our defense; EPA directives must be brought in line to reflect our national interests; environmental, economic as well as strategic.
How many businesses in this state have been and are being closed by the Ohio EPA? Remembering the lessons of Detroit, when will we see the kind of leadership in this state shown in other areas - now that China has flexed its rare earths muscle and effectively put the breaks on our ability to expand green technologies in the automotive, wind turbine and a host of other sectors?
The United States as a whole, and many states racing into the green technology panacea find themselves in a position where China will dictate the price of key ingredients in many green technologies as well as vital strategic materials - if they make them available to us at all.
No one is doubting that we must protect the enviroment; it is our responsibility as temporary stewards. We also have a nation to defend; it is our responsibility to future generations.
With a recent and dramatic 72% cut in exports current Chinese output of rare earths are already well below world demand.
While Congress sleeps; regulation creeps, and our military weeps.