China May Hoard Rare Earth Metals, Vital to Some Clean Tech

by | Aug 31, 2009

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wind-turbinesChina is considering a ban on export of rare earth metals, which are essential to the production of some alternative energy technologies, including hybrid vehicles and wind turbines.

At the center of a brewing international conflict, any such action by China could cripple clean tech manufacturers outside of China, giving the nation a virtual grip-lock on global manufacture of batteries for hybrid vehicles, as well as magnets for wind turbines and other electric motors, reports the Telegraph UK.

Enter California, once upon a time the world’s leading producer of rare earth metals. Industrialists propose restarting a neglected mine that is considered the world’s richest concentration of such metals, which include terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium and lutetium.

In the 1990s, the rare earth metals market was left for dead by the U.S. extraction industry, as China overproduced the materials, causing prices to plummet.

But now, with China threatening a trade war of sorts, interest is gaining in the 55-acre California mine, which is near the town of Mountain Pass, reports Reuters.

Molycorp Minerals LLC has secured the rights to resume mining for 20 years, but first it must drain the mine, which may take two years.

Even then, Molycorp’s efforts may be insufficient.

Chinese digs about 97 percent of the globe’s rare earth production, amounting to 139,000 tons in 2008, with output projected to climb to 160,000 tons a year by 2015. At that point, however, counting even China’s production there may be a 40,000 ton deficit in supply.

Rare earth metals are integral to hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which uses about 2.2 pounds of neodymium, the key component in the alloy for permanent magnets, in each vehicle. Each and every Prius battery also requires another 22-33 pounts of lanthanum.

By 2012, Molycorp estimates it may be able to produce some 20,000 tons of rare earth metals a year.

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