AMITIAE - Thursday 29 December 2011

Essential Elements for Electronic Devices: Rare Earths and Chinese Control

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


When the term, Rare Earth, began to appear in the news towards the end of 2010, I wondered what the significance of it was. I was reminded slightly of Fuller's Earth, which had been dug out of the ground not far from my home in the UK. It is a substance used in cloth finishing, but has a range of other valuable uses. So do Rare Earths.

The Problem

The BBC told us in a useful article at the end of December 2010 that China was to cut 10% of its exports and that these are are essential for making many electronic goods, such as TVs and PC monitors. One begins to feel the collective shudder that runs through the IT industry, particularly in this region.

This is now repeated at the end of 2011, we read on Electronista, by another proposed cut in exports of these valuable metals: "exporters will be allowed to sell 10,546 tons of rare earth metals during the first half of 2012 . . . "a 27% decrease from the first half of 2011." The article adds that the number of companies allowed to make these exports is now down to 11 from 26 previously.

Several countries have electronics industries that depend on such materials and any shortages will effect production. Apple, with its current use of companies in China, like Foxconn, could be less affected. As the (economical) strength of China in the area of rare earths has been known for almost 20 years, this may have been another astute piece of maneuvering by Cupertino.

There are replacement sources, but while China is cutting exports, increasing prices world-wide, the materials may well be diverted to China's already large electronics industry, thus making their products cheaper and more competitive in the long run. More exports from China, leads to a stronger economy there and relative weaknesses elsewhere as the world takes up the slack. As such, with the still emerging importance of electronics technologies, China recognised as long ago as 1992, that rare earths were as important to the country as oil had been to the Middle East. China now produces 95% of the earth's supplies.

Other research is now being carried out to reduce the number (or amount) of rare earth materials in magnets, but this is in the early stages and manufacturers are likely to depend on rare earths for their products for quite a while. It may also be difficult to predict how demand for the devices that use such substances will grow.


There are 30 elements, all in group 3 of the periodic table and the 6th and 7th periods. They are listed in two series: the Lanthanide series and the Actinide series. Lanthanum, the first, has a value in the making of expensive camera lenses.

However, a 2010 United States Geological Survey (USGS) report cites the number of elements at 15: ". . . elements with atomic numbers 57 through 71, from lanthanum to lutetium (“lanthanides”), plus yttrium (39)". it is interesting to see in this report the strategic importance that the US Government places on such elements for emerging technologies and for defense purposes as well: "REE-containing magnets, metal alloys for batteries and light-weight structures, and phosphors are essential for many current and emerging alternative energy technologies, such as electric vehicles, energy-efficient lighting, and wind power. REE are also critical for a number of key defense systems and other advanced materials." The survey is available for download as a 4.2MB PDF file.

Although the report has a geological flavour understandably, there are a couple of interesting points from the point of view of investors and governments in the region. One of the possibilities I saw concerned discussion of deposits (and their makeup) in the US, but also "Lateritic deposits—highly weathered soil horizons, rich in iron and aluminum oxide minerals, which develop in a tropical or forested warm environment—have been studied as a potential source of REE; these lateritic REE deposits may contain large resources when they overlie low- grade primary sources, such as carbonatites and syenites." Laterite is widely available in the region and this might be investigated further, especially as the report notes later, "During the past 50 years outside of China, there has been little REE exploration and almost no mine development".

A web page linked to Denver University, adds to the information on classification as well as providing another, easy to understand explanation of what these elements are and, later, what they do. Rather than being earth-like as the name might suggest, Dr Calvert tells us these Rare Earths are all metals, but when the pages were written in 2003, was not concerned about scarcities. Economics and politics may have changed all that.

He lists the main uses as glass polishing and ceramics; automotive catalytic converters; permanent magnets (16%); petroleum refining catalysts; cathode ray tube phosphors and miscellaneous (including lighter flints). There is considerably more technical detail on the page.

Rare Earth Future

As users of technology we are surrounded by such materials that are important to maintaining our current lifestyles. Gopal Ratnam on Bloomberg's website, uses, "Blackberry to Prius" as part of the title and his opening cites not only these items, but hard disks as well. Citing Jack Lifton, founder of Technology Metals Research LLC in Detroit, we are told that, "They are pervasive in our technology, especially in miniaturization of electronics". While the date of this article (23 October 2010) means we need to revise any information concerning Chinese actions and restrictions, the range of products ffected by any change in the supply will have a knock-on effect. Gopal Ratnam, for example, mentions a sevenfold climb in the price of cerium oxide (used for polishing semiconductors) in a few months.

While China is quoted in a number of publications in October 2010 as claiming the supply of these materials will not become a form of bargaining chip, its actions after the maritime dispute with Japan, and the subsequent 10% reductions in exports to worldwide markets at that time together with the more recent report of export reductions for 2012, must put this in some doubt. It was claimed in 2010 that the reductions were in line with WTO rules.

An AFP report, available on Google News, again mentions the latest cuts and refers to the actions of Japan's Mitsui who are buying up glass which may be rich in some of these metals. There will be much money in such recycling if China imposes more restrictions. This is at a time when Japan's rare earth imports from China are still reported as increasing, we read in an item by Chikago Mogi on Reuters (31 Jan 2011). Electronista (above) also indicate that a Japanese company has found some deposits in Hawaii this year.

There will also be considerable economic benefits if some of the countries in Asia are themselves able to find such rare earth resources, but they must be extracted in a way that does not harm the environment. There is already too much short term greed at the expense of long-term damage in the region.

This article was originally posted on the AMITIAE site. It has now been revised and updated.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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