To make a smartphone, you have to extract rare metals from about a ton of earth. Mobile phones, flat screens, satellites: in the high-tech world, they are everywhere - yet they are called "rare earths": metals with very special properties. For the high-tech industry, the party is over, and innovation processes must at last take account of the weight of resources, a very big brake in prospect, because rare metals, which are indispensable to high technology, are at the heart of geostrategic conflicts. A subject at the heart of the 8th International Conference on Rare Earths at the end of November 2012.
Illustration: Painting "The Rare Earths" by Gabriel Lalonde (Mixed techniques on cardboard ink, oil, dry pigments)
Few raw materials have such a misleading name as "rare earths". For one thing, the name rare earths actually refers to seventeen metals, fifteen of which form the lanthanum series, plus scandium and ytrium. The properties of ytrium, whose properties, which were unheard of at the time, were discovered by Johan Gadolin in the 1790s. At that time he was working on materials from a Swedish mining deposit. Until the craze for colour television, rare earths, in this case europium and terbium, were of very marginal use. Thus, the adjective 'rare' is, like the word it qualifies, a false friend inherited from its historical context: it is neither the proven reserves of rare earths nor their distribution over the surface of the globe that could give rise to fears of scarcity. If there is scarcity, it is in the producing countries: 97% of rare earths are now produced in the People's Republic of China. However, since the mass production of colour TV sets, rare earths have become indispensable in the manufacture of high-tech objects and the production of renewable energy - liquid crystal screens, tablets, low-energy light bulbs, electric or hybrid car batteries, such as the famous Toyota Prius. In short, to the so-called industries of the future.
Not to mention their strategic use in industries say China's virtual monopoly on the exploitation of rare earths has thus transformed a geological, mining and industrial issue into a geopolitical crisis.
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The problem of global competition for strategic raw materials is, according to the major consultants, one of the keys to development, both economically and geopolitically speaking, which is not without raising some serious questions about the future supply of major French and European groups.
Map of the distribution of rare earth reserves in the world ©MAGAZINE CARTO
China in a situation of oligopoly
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the U.S. Institute of Geological Surveys, China holds more than 50% of the world's reserves of rare earth oxides. But it is above all production that poses a problem, because here, China's monopoly is total, with more than 97 % of the world's production in 2011, or 130,000 tonnes. A situation that worries many governments at a time when demand is growing rapidly (6 % per year).
The consideration of the environmental factor by the Chinese authorities, initiated by popular pressure, is a decisive turning point. The riots in Qidong and Shifang in July 20012 and Ningbo in October 2012, all linked to problems of pollution or the establishment of chemical plants, demonstrate the fed up feelings of the Chinese population. The Chinese problems have only just begun...
Guillaume Pitron has made an excellent documentary on "The War of Rare Earths", a subject that is not often talked about:
(Source : Agoravox - Dec 2012)
What about the United States?
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In the past, the extraction of minerals such as terbium, dysprosium, neodymium, yttrium, etc., was dominated by the United States until the 1990s, thanks in particular to the Mountain Pass reserve in California. Since the early 1990s, China has acquired a virtual monopoly on production and exports.
In the United States, a bill aimed at resurrecting domestic production of rare earths was approved in October 2010, but is still awaiting passage through the Senate. The European Union has begun stockpiling some to reduce dependence in the short term, and Japan has discovered huge reserves in the Pacific. Plans to open new farms are on the increase, but few are likely to start production quickly, especially since with the abandonment of the sector several years ago, technical and human skills also need to be rebuilt.
Faced with this situation, private companies are also looking for alternative solutions.
Research and development projects in France
– Euro Dieuze Industrie is working on the recycling of batteries from hybrid and electric vehicles. Rare metals recovered: cobalt and lithium.
- Envie 2E / MEDUSA project: dismantling and treatment of LCD screens. Recovered rare metals: indium and rare earths.
- Récupyl: recycling of silicon photovoltaic panels. Rare metals recovered: silver and indium.
- Rhodia: recovery of catalytic converters. Rare metals recovered: rare earths.
- Rhodia BRGM / VALOPLUS project: powder separation and rare earth extraction on compact fluorescent lamps.
The boom in rare earth mining projects outside China ©CHRISTIAN HOCQUARD
While all of these solutions are attracting significant research and investment efforts, they do not radically challenge global dependence on China, at least in the medium term. (Source : Globe, the blog of Planet Earth)
Nevertheless, the recycling track seems very promising. Deep in Germany, near the Czech border, an SME has discovered a process that should make it possible to recover rare earths in large quantities from industrial waste. A report by Alexander Wolkers for ARTE :