Coverage from Minor Metals & Rare Earths 2010 – Xiamen, China

Having just arrived back in Beijing to find that winter has arrived early, I should thank Metal Pages Ltd. for holding their annual Minor Metals and Rare Earths conference in Xiamen this year. Located on the Taiwan Straight, Xiamen is known for its temperate climate as well as for being the heart of China’s tungsten industry. But most of the attention at this year’s conference was – not surprisingly – focused on rare earths. Held between Oct. 18th and 21st, the conference included rare earth producers, end-users, traders and representatives from relevant government departments.

Chinese presenters included Xu Xu, President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Trade (CCMC), and Jiang Fan from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM), the department responsible for managing the issuance of China’s rare earth quotas. Both presentations reiterated the need for government controls in the development of the domestic rare earth industry in order to ensure environmental protection. The general theme was that the industry should not expect any major changes to current policy trends in the near future. There will be continued support for the development of domestic value-added RE processing and strengthening of regulations for the protection of resources. Fortunately, the presentation by Ms. Wang Caifeng, from the Chinese Rare Earths Industry Association, sounded less like a policy statement and openly discussed the social-political issues affecting RE policy development in China, particularly the dependence of many smaller communities on China’s excess refining capacity.

After a very extensive report on the world economy, Mark Smith, CEO of Molycorp Inc., breathed some life into the room with an update of his company’s activities and a discussion of what he referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of rare earth. In his view, this new era will be characterized by six developments:
1. Diversity of RE supply
2. Better international cooperation
3. Advancement of environmental technology for processing REEs
4. Development of new and innovative uses for REEs
5. Emergence of RE recycling
6. Greater transparency and honesty from RE industry

In light of recent developments in the RE industry, Mr. Smith’s emphasis on potential areas for east-west cooperation was well received by the conference attendees. Speaking with many colleagues from the RE industry, there is strong agreement that recent political developments have overshadowed opportunities for expanding the dialogue for cooperation between Chinese and western RE companies in order to resolve the issues of material shortages, technological development and environmental protection. Molycorp’s presentation highlighted the need for greater dialogue so as to increase transparency in the industry, as well as for the benefit of academic studies and the development of more environmentally friendly extraction and separation technologies.

This type of east-west cooperation is already exemplified by Canada’s Neo Material Technologies Inc., whose well-spoken Executive VP, Geoff Bedford, followed with a discussion of Neo’s operations in China and their particular concerns over future supplies of terbium and dysprosium. In order to address these concerns, Neo has been working in concert with Mitsubishi Corp. to develop heavy rare earth extraction from material produced at the Pitinga tin mine in northern Brazil.

Development of new REE deposits outside of China was definitely the central concern of Japanese presenters at the conference as well. Mr. Yasushi Watanabe, from the Institute for Geo-Resources and Environment, discussed major measures currently being undertaken by the Japanese government and private enterprises in Japan in order to lessen dependence on Chinese RE, including the development of new resources outside of China, the reduction in use of rare earth metals for certain applications and the experimentation of substitutes for rare earths in various applications. 

Mr. Shigeo Nakamura, of Advanced Materials Japan Corp., discussed Japan’s US$ 1.25 billion integrated policy to address rare earth supply disruptions and shortages. Most of the money, he explained, is targeted at technological innovations for the production of REEs (US$ 490 million), but a large portion has also been earmarked for supporting Japanese rare earth mining ventures (US$ 370 million). One such joint venture, involving Toyota Tsusho Corp., Sojitz Corp. and a Vietnamese government-run resource development company, is scheduled to begin commercial mining operations in Dong Pao, Vietnam as early as next year. Other investments by the government will be made in developing RE recycling processes and supporting research for finding material substitutes.

The conference also covered numerous minor metals and included some particularly interesting presentations by Larry Seeley of Neo Material Technologies Inc. and Kris Van den Broeck of Umicore regarding metal recycling and its increasing role in filling the supply gap for many minor metals. RE metal recycling is an area that many expect to grow significantly over the coming decade in order to reduce dependency on Chinese primary sources, decrease the environmental impact of extraction and separation and provide a more stable supply of materials to end-users. However, metal recycling remains a very complex process, and developing new techniques to extract REEs from various materials will take time and significant investment. The Japanese may be a leg-up with government support already directed to this end, but it will be interesting to watch who leads the development of such technology over the coming years.