To exploit rare earth metals, some miners use a chemical extraction process that involves digging several holes of just a few feet in depth and feeding pipes into the holes. A concentrated mixture of chemicals is then pumped through the pipes, sinking into the clay below and leaching out rare earth metals as it passes. It seems incredible that such a low-tech method is used to harvest minerals that are used in some of the world’s most technologically advanced products.
China has begun the serious process of fighting back in the great World Trade Organisation fight with the west over its rare earth elements export regime. A large part of that fight back is to be built on the premise of necessity. It’s is necessary for China to control REE production due to the environmental damage to China it causes. It is necessary to restrict REE exports, since China is already over supplying the rest of the world with REEs from its limited supply, that it needs for its future economy. China has about 35% of the world’s REE supply, but provides the world with about 95% of its REEs.
As part of the fight back, China has begun the process of conditioning the public, both inside and outside China, though it’s outside china that really counts. While the WTO panel that will eventually get to hear the case is supposed to be impartial and only consider relevant facts, part of China’s strategy is to co-opt the global environmentalist lobby to its cause. If the world’s “green” campaigners get behind China’s cause, the pressure on the WTO panel might take on a political dimension similar to that taking place in Malaysia.
Below, the semi-official China Daily kicks off the conditioning, in what I suspect will just be the first of many attempts to press all the right environmentalists buttons. The rich man’s club of the west, forcing the poor Chinese peasants to take the environmental heat. As an argument it may not hold much water, but in an austerity stressed world chasing its tail over man made global warming, if successful it just might swing public opinion China’s way, giving cover for China to ignore any adverse WTO ruling. Either way, I doubt that we will see any finality in this REE fight before mid-2014 if then. Below the China Daily article, what the WTO fight is really all about.
China’s rare earth boom comes at grim cost
Updated: 2012-04-23 15:57
NANCHANG – A green future made possible through the use of rare earth metals seems a world away from Zhang Yang’e, whose neighborhood well has become unusable as a result of local mining operations.
An unpleasant odor wafts from a well in Zhang’s backyard, with the well’s brownish-yellow water sitting beneath a tangle of spiderwebs.
“The water used to taste sweet and our neighbors all loved it. But now it has been become undrinkable,” said the 73-year-old farmer, a resident of Dingnan county in east China’s Jiangxi province.
“Even my vegetables withered after I watered them with well water,” she said, referring to the rows of green onions, chives and peas she planted in her backyard.
—-Zhang has blamed a rare earth mine located just 10 meters from her home for the poor quality of her well water. A green hill where the mine was built has been scraped and turned into a cratered landscape not unlike that of the moon, with piles of rock tailings nearly as high as Zhang’s two-story house.
Trees on the hill have been toppled and topsoil has been removed. Chemicals have been pumped into holes drilled in the ground to help recover the rare earth metals located there, Zhang said.
—- In Dingnan, Longnan and other counties in the city of Ganzhou, red clay on the hillsides contains a high concentration of heavy rare earth metals that can be easily absorbed through the clay. Local farmers have mastered the art of using high-potency fertilizer to dissolve the clay and obtain the valuable minerals inside.
Although the Ganzhou government has ordered a shutdown of all rare earth mines since October as an effort to regulate the sector, it is not hard for smaller producers to elude the government’s reach.
“It seems impossible to completely eradicate illegal mining, as rare earth elements are scattered almost everywhere in the red clay,” said Yi Wenbin, deputy magistrate of Longnan county.
Statistics from Ganzhou’s mine management bureau indicate that the bureau uncovered 52 instances of illegal rare earth mining in the first three months of this year.
China’s rare earth policy backs Apple into a corner
Report says fondleslabs factories are located near source
By Phil Muncaster • Posted in, 24th April 2012 03:24 GMT
Apple’s shiny fondleslabs are made in China not only because of the low cost of labour in the People’s Republic but also due to the surging prices and tightening export restrictions on rare earth minerals which the nation has a near monopoly on, according to a report.
Although Apple has been notoriously secretive about the materials it uses to produce the iconic tablet, tech repair site ifixit.org spoke to Cambridge professor Tim Coombs who reckons the fondleslab could be packed with the rare minerals.
First up there could be lanthanum in the device’s lithium-ion polymer battery, while the magnets along the side and in the cover were pegged as containing neodymium alloy, followed by a selection of rare earths to produce the different colours in the display, he said.
Apple didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment from The Reg but considering the near-ubiquity of rare earth minerals in modern tech kit and the famously huge margins Cupertino manages to make on its shiny toys, the story does make sense.
As the report suggests, manufacturing the device at or closer to the source of these rare minerals would circumvent China’s increasingly tight export quotas and cut costs pretty significantly.