To the average American, China’s control of the world production, processing technology and stockpile of critical metals is not their concern. However, to our military and high-tech leaders, it is a very big deal.
Our government has a list consisting of 35 metals considered to be vital to our national economy and security. While 17 are classified as “rare earth” and are not commonly known, all are critical components of products such as smartphones, laptop computers, lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles, jet engines, wind turbines, LEDs and sophisticated 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, turning out 20,000 metric tons.
The only American rare earth mine is located in California, but it has no accompanying processing plant. The single North American processing facility is Canadian.
“Even if you can mine the minerals, China dominates the entire supply chain,“ consultant Jack Lifton told the Wall Street Journal. “Chinese companies can do every stage of the process.” China has a technology advantage.
President Donald Trump’s emergency order under the rarely used Defense Production Act is to accelerate domestic rare earth metals mining and processing. It also provides assistance to companies recycling lithium batteries, cellphones and computers rather than sending them to landfills.
In specific, rare earth metals 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.”
New reprocessing technology is coming on line. Companies from Finland to Canada are focusing on recovering metals from lithium-ion batteries which have completed their useful life in electric vehicles.
For example, Finnish energy company Fortum is using a low-CO2 “hydrometallurgical recycling” (leaching) process rather than melting batteries in a furnace. It has increased the recovery rate to 80 percent. British Columbia-based American Manganese, Inc., is piloting a similar process and last week announced it is extracting 92 percent of the lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries from its test operation.
Mining and processing rare earth metals is messy and has a darker side. 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 earth metals and does so as a byproduct of iron ore mining.
The ore is transported to Bautou’s outskirts where it is separated, leached and purified using acid baths. The spent processing water is contaminated and pumped into a 6-mile long tailing pond.
The foul waters in 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 those smelters 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.
Part of weaning ourselves from China is to recover as much metal as possible domestically and not just send our used batteries, cellphones and electronics to landfills. Even with recycling we’ll need to find ways to better mine and process critical mineral ores — ways that protect workers, neighbors and our environment.
Hopefully, the funding provided in President Trump’s executive order will help break the hammerlock China now has when it comes to critical rare earth metals.
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.