'Rare earth' shortage threatens green revolution
Updated on 07 December 2009
Could a shortage of mud and minerals, essential to low carbon technologies, curtail the world's plans for a green future?
The key to a low carbon future is not negotiations in Copenhagen but mud and minerals in China.
All low carbon technologies, from wind turbines to electric cars and low energy lightbulbs, use elements known as 'rare earths'. And 95 per cent of these are found in China.
Earlier this year the Chinese decided to restrict export of these essential metals and minerals and now a shortage is predicted which could effect the development of green technologies.
The way China has been extracting and processing the 'rare earth' is also thought to be ruining thousands of villager's farmland.
International editor Lindsey Hilsum travelled to Baotou in Inner Mongolia to see the dangerous and damaging extraction process.
'Rare earth' processing in China is a messy, dangerous, polluting business. It uses toxic chemicals – acids, sulfates, ammonia.
The workers have little or no protection, but rare earth elements like yttrium and cerium are prized for their magnetic properties, and high conductivity. Low carbon technologies, the key implementing to a deal in Copenhagen, depend on them.
Green campaigners love wind turbines, but the permanent magnets used to manufacture a three megawatt turbine use about two tonnes of 'rare earth'.
The authorities provided a DVD of Baiyun Ebo in Inner Mongolia where most of the world's 'rare earth' is mined along with iron ore - they would not let the team film it themselves.
But at Baotou, a hundred miles away, is the frozen tailing lake where 'rare earth' mixes with mud, waiting for processing at nearby factories.
Technologies we all use like computers, mobile phones and energy saving light bulbs use 'rare earths' processed here, and local villagers whose farmland has been ruined by seepage from the lake pay the price.
High on the frozen steppe of Inner Mongolia, a huge wind farm. China is aiming to be the world leader in wind energy. Chinese negotiators at Copenhagen may resist political commitments, but the government has already subsidising new technologies to boost the economy and be sustainable.
China cannot produce enough 'rare earth' for everyone anymore, and if governments are serious about low carbon technologies, other countries will have to start producing.
Champions of a low carbon future have yet to wake up to the environmental price Chinese workers and villagers are paying. At Copenhagen politicians talk of cutting carbon emissions, but they cannot meet any targets without 'rare earth' – that means a sustainable supply and not all from China.
You can read Lindsey Hilsum's 'rare earth' blog here. You can watch the full version of her report on Channel 4 News tonight at 7pm or online shortly afterwards.
Rare Earth factoids
The 15 'rare earth' elements, numbered 57 to 71 on the periodic table, are essential for new "green" technologies but their extraction is poisoning farmland in China.
Each Toyota Prius motor uses 1 kg of neodymium, and each battery 10- 11 kg of lanthanum, both 'rare earth' elements.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs use europium, terbium and yttrium. Without these, they don't work. The permanent magnets used in a three megawatt wind turbine need about two tonnes of neodymium and other rare earths.
Hard discs, LEDs, I-phones and various military technologies also need rare earth minerals and metals. China has only 53 per cent of the world's rare earth deposits but provides more than 95 per cent of the world's supply.
Extracting rare earth requires the use of acids, ammonia and sulphates – all toxic chemicals.
In the last 10 years, a 40,000-tonne per year global market for 'rare earth' has grown to 125,000 tonnes per year.
By 2014, it’s predicted to be 200,000 tonnes. Only two projects outside China are expected to be producing rare earth in the next five years: Lynas Corporation's Mount Weld in Australia, and Molycorp Minerals' Mountain Pass in California.
Deng Xiaoping once said "The Middle East has oil, but China has rare earth."