Friday, June 26, 2015

Rare Earths Not So Rare?

  • The bankruptcy of the main US producer of "rare earth" materials signals the end of a multi-year crisis over their global supply and cost.
The announced Chapter 11 filing of US-based rare earths mining and refining company Molycorp effectively marks the end of a crisis that managed to escape the notice of most people. Rare earths are elements of low abundance, compared to the ores of metals like iron and copper. Despite their relative scarcity, they have proved extremely useful in industrial applications including renewable energy technologies. Five years ago it appeared that China had cornered the market on rare earths and was exercising its market power to, among other aims, lure businesses reliant on these minerals to shift their operations to China.

Molycorp's modernization of its rare earth mine in California and subsequent expansion into other aspects of the business were responses to a perceived global crisis. China's restrictions on rare earth exports threatened the economic competitiveness of hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines, non-silicon solar cells, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), and other devices of interest to energy markets and policy makers.

The situation also raised concerns in the defense industry, due to the importance of rare earth metals and alloys in the manufacture of missile components, radar and sonar equipment, and other military hardware. Governments created or expanded strategic stockpiles for these materials, and took other steps to manage their reliance on supplies from China.

However, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations last fall, the effectiveness of efforts by the Chinese government to leverage their control of rare earth supplies was short-lived. Its policies led to mostly market-based responses, involving both supply and demand, that undermined China's near-monopoly and ultimately contributed to Molycorp's present financial difficulties.

Molycorp wasn't the only company to bring new supplies into production, or the only one to struggle as the crisis unwound. New supplies were already in the pipeline at the time China restricted its exports, in reaction to price spikes that preceded the policy as global demand bumped up against the output of China's mines and processing facilities. Nor was government control of China's fragmented rare earth industry sufficient to prevent continued exports exploiting loopholes of the restrictions.

Finally, and probably most importantly for both China-based and non-China-based producers, innovators in the industries using these materials found ways to make do with lower proportions of rare earths in permanent magnet motors and generators, or to do without them altogether.

The upshot from an energy perspective is that if anything will slow the expansion of wind and solar power, hybrid cars and EVs, and other alternative energy and energy-saving technologies, it is unlikely to be a shortage of rare earths. They may be rare relative to other industrial commodities, but in the small proportions used it seems they are not rare enough to pose more than a temporary bottleneck.

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