The rare earth metal dilemma | Don Brunell

These 17 elements are critical for many products, from smart phones to major weapon systems.

Hopefully, when American and Chinese leaders meet to resolve trade differences, talks won’t breakdown and result in a new round of tariffs or product restrictions. It is in both nations’ interests for presidents Trump and Xi Jinping to find common ground.

Our state has lots riding on those negotiations. The Brookings Institute points out that Washington would be “the worst off” of any state because 154,000 people are employed in industries that would be affected by new Chinese countermeasures.

Especially troublesome is the Chinese indicated they may cutoff exports of rare earth metals to our country. They are important because of their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties which make many technologies perform with reduced weight, emissions, and energy consumption. The U.S. Geological Survey adds: “These special metals provide greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.”

While the 17 elements classified as “rare earth” are not commonly known, they are critical components in products ranging from smart phones and laptop computers to batteries, electric vehicle and jet engines, wind turbines, LEDs and major weapons systems.

The U.S. currently imports 80 percent of its rare earth metals from China. China sits on 40 percent of the global deposits and currently produces 80 percent (120,000 metric tons) of the world’s supply. Australia is second making 20,000 metric tons.

Our government has a “Critical Minerals List” consisting of 35 metals considered to be vital to our national economy and security. It includes all rare earth minerals “For 14 of the 35, the U.S. is completely import-dependent, and in 10 of those 14 cases, China is the U.S.’s largest supplier or the world’s largest producer,” Larry Reaugh, American Manganese CEO, wrote in a recent Economic Standard editorial.

The U.S. has one rare earth mine which was closed in 2015 after the owner went bankrupt. The Mountain Pass open pit is located in southeastern California—60 miles southwest of Las Vegas. When operational, the ore was sent to China for processing.

Here’s the dilemma.

Mining and processing rare earth metals is messy and most countries don’t want to deal with the associated pollutants. Nowhere is the contamination more evident than in China itself.

The giant Mongolian open pit mine in Bayan Obo is located 75 miles north of Baotou, a city with 2.4 million people. The mine produces the bulk of the world’s rare earths and does so as a byproduct of iron ore mining.

The ore is transported to Bautou’s outskirts for processing. The rare earth minerals are separated and purified using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths. The spent processing water is pumped into a six mile long tailing pond.

The foul waters of the tailing pond not only contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium, which if ingested, causes cancer, London’s Guardian newspaper reported in 2012. Before the factories were built, there were just fields of watermelon and tomatoes as far as the eye could see, Li Guirong, former secretary of the local Communist party, stated.

Irrespective of the results of the latest U.S.-China talks, our country is heavily dependent on foreign nations for metals we need to propel our high tech economy and military. The dilemma is no one wants a Bayan Obo mine or Bautou processing plant in their neighborhood.

Part of the solution is to recycle and recover as many components as possible and not just send our used batteries, cellphones and electronics to the scrap yard or dumpster. Regardless, still we need to find ways to mine and process critical mineral ores in ways that protect workers, neighbors and our environment.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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