Exploiting the Rare Earths: China says no

  • Mon, 16 Jul 2012 11:58:00 -0500 - Nigerian Tide
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What are Rare Earths?

Rare earth materials, a group of 17 key elements used in high-technology products, are called as “Industrial secret ingredients”. They are what make your cell phones vibrate with a tiny but intensified magnet or harden a porcelain knife sharp enough to cut a steak. They are been widely used in high-technology products. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_earth_element

However, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not commonly found in concentrated and economically exploitable ways.

There are two blocks of rare earths, the lanthanide series and the actinide series. These common properties apply to both the lanthanides and actinides.

  • The rare earths are silver, silvery-white, or gray metals.
  • The metals have a high luster, but tarnish readily in air.
  • The metals have high electrical conductivity.
  • The rare earths share many common properties. This makes them difficult to separate or even distinguish from each other.
  • There are very small differences in solubility and complex formation between the rare earths.
  • The rare earth metals naturally occur together in minerals (e.g., monazite is a mixed rare earth phosphate).  http://chemistry.about.com/od/elementgroups/a/rareearths.htm

Sourcing for the Rare Earth

A traditional process to get this mineral will eradicate trees and grass first and peel off topsoil of the earth. What’s more, the waste water coming from the chemical reaction is full of ammonia nitrogen and heavy metals, which are extremely harmful to people’s health and the nature.

Rare-metal pegmatites containing economic concentrations of columbite-tantalite ore minerals (coltan) are widespread in the Pan-African (600±150Ma) basement of Nigeria. These pegmatites are also important sources of precious and semiprecious stones (such as beryl, aquamarine, tourmalines). Until recently these pegmatites were known mainly from a broad 400km-long NE-SW trending belt stretching from the Wamba-Keffi- Nasarawa area (near the Jos Plateau) through Isanlu-Egbe in central Nigeria to the Ijero-Aramoko-llesha areas of southwest Nigeria, and a few occurrences in the Obudu and Oban massifs of southeast Nigeria.

State-run companies in Asia only take up a small part of the rare earths productivity, but they are under the toughest environmental regulation. Many small unauthorized groups are off the limit, said an unnamed manager of a large rare earths company. The price of the rare minerals soared as China tightened its control on the rare earths industry last year and this has provoked a series of international trade frictions. China supplies about 97 percent of the world’s demand for rare earths metals, which possess magnetic, luminescent and other properties used in emerging clean energy technologies, computers and electronic. But Beijing has curtailed exports, saying it needs to protect reserves from reckless exploitation. This year it has slashed export quotas to about 40 percent below 2009 levels.

“China has exercised orderly management of the exploitation, production and export of rare earths, and this is also in line with WTO rules,” Zhu told a news conference.

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