By Eddie Wrenn
PUBLISHED: 09:25 EST, 20 June 2012 | UPDATED: 11:26 EST, 20 June 2012
China’s rare earth reserves account for approximately 23 percent of the world’s total – but are being excessively exploited, the Chinese government has said.
Although 23 per cent is a high percentage for one nation to possess, China supplies over 90 percent of rare earth products on the global market.
We need the raw materials – chemicals such as yttrium, which is used in TVs, or lanthanum, used for camera lenses – for the modern tools we use everyday.
This runs the risk that if China starts reducing its output, we may see spiralling prices for our modern accessories – or even simply be able to produce them in the first place.
According to the white paper titled ‘Situation and Policies of China’s Rare Earth Industry’, the country has ‘paid a big price’ for problems in its rare earth industry like excessive exploitation, environmental damages, unhealthy industrial structure, under-rated prices and rampant smuggling.
China has seen rare earth reserves keep declining in major mining areas, with the reserve-extraction ratio of ion-absorption rare earth mines in southern provinces slumping to 15 from 50 two decades ago, the white paper said.
In North China’s Baotou city, only one-third of the original volume of rare earth resources is still available in the main mining areas, it added.
Meanwhile, outdated production processes and techniques have severely damaged the environment, the white paper said, noting that excessive mining has resulted in landslides and pollution emergencies and even major disasters in some places.
Besides, the industry is also plagued by over-capacity in low-end product manufacturing and the fact that prices of rare earth products fail to reflect their value and scarcity despite a gradual rise since the second half of 2010, according to the white paper.
Rising demand for rare earth products has fueled smuggling, with the volume of rare earth products imported from China calculated by foreign customs reaching 1.2 times the export volume counted by the Chinese customs in 2011, the white paper said.
China is the world’s largest producer of rare earths, a group of 17 metals vital for manufacturing products ranging from smart phones, wind turbines, electric car batteries to missiles.
SO WHAT ARE RARE EARTH MATERIALS?
Rare Earth materials, as there name implies, are found on Earth. They may not necessarily be rare, but they can be tough to harvest as they can be spread throughout the world’s crust.
This is a full list of rare earth materials, many of which are mined and sold in China.
- Scandium – used for aerospace components, and an additive in Mercury lamps
- Yttrium – used in TVs, high-temperature superconductors, and microwave filters
- Lanthanum used for battery-electrodes, camera lenses, and in the oil industry
- Cerium – used as polishing powder, yellow colors in glass and ceramics, self-cleaning ovens, and the flints in lighters
- Praseodymium – used for certain magnets, lasers, carbon arc lighting, and as a colorant in glasses and enamels
- Neodymium – used in magnets, lasers, violet colors in glass and ceramics, and ceramic capacitors
- Promethium – used in nuclear batteries
- Samarium – used in lasers, neutron capture, masers
- Europium – used in lasers and mercury lamps
- Gadolinium – used in lasers, X-ray tubes, computer memories, neutron capture, and MRI machines
- Terbium – used in fluorescent lamps
- Dysprosium – used in magnets and lasers
- Holmium – used in lasers
- Erbium – used in lasers
- Thulium – used in some X-ray machines
- Ytterbium – used in infrared lasers and chemical research
- Lutetium – used in PET Scan detectors and high refractive index glass