June 9, 2010
Regarding ‘Worries mount over China’s ‘rare earth’ export ban‘:
There are a couple of misconceptions about rare earths and China. Whilst China corners the market in terms of end product (i.e. rare earths that can be turned into products), the country is not the only one with deposits.
What China has done is single-mindedly focus on refining rare-earths to the point that it is very difficult for other countries to compete with China – since for the most part the Chinese have the technology and the inclination to suppress competition. Furthermore, the refining process is highly energy-intensive.
Interestingly, Europe has its own supply of rare earths in Greenland (Ilimaussaq Intrusion in southern Greenland). The deposits are estimated to be able to supply 25% of current world demand. However, Europe lacks the ability to refine rare earths on an industrial and economically competitive (with China) scale. This is something that it may wish to focus on.
One of the reasons why this should be done is as follows:
Europe wants to lead in ‘green tech’ and one of the flagships of the European green tech movement is wind turbines (WTs) both on and off-shore. A key trend in WT development is the use of gearless permanent magnet generators coupled to full-scale electronics. The magnets depend on rare earths.
Chinese companies are also developing such equipment and have ambitions to sell into Europe. One could see a scenario in which European access to Chinese rare earths is used as leverage to ensure Chinese access to European wind markets (i.e. no anti-dumping cases).
I wish the EU success at the WTO regarding rare earth access. However, it may find that delaying tactics by the Chinese (mimicking similar EU tactics on bananas and GMOs) will lead to no result.
The most practical step would be to develop Greenland deposits and a refining capability. It will be interesting to see if the EU is capable of thinking on a strategic scale and then implementing the strategy, i.e. doing now with respect to rare earths what China did in the 1990s.
Mike ParrLetters to the EurActiv editor