January 15, 2010

Why China won’t be able to corner the rare earth market

Filed under: China, Economics, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:36

Tim Worstall looks at the importance of rare earth to the modern electronics industry, and why China’s ongoing attempt to corner the market won’t work in the long run:

The Chinese government is trying to corner the rare earths market and that isn’t good news for the tech business. Those with good memories of Chemistry O Level will know what the rare earths are: the funny little line of elements from Lanthanum to Lutetium at the bottom of the periodic table, along with Yttrium and Scandium, which we usually add to the list.

The reason we like them in the tech business is because they’re what enables us to make a lot of this tech stuff that is the business. You can’t run fibre optic cables without your Erbium repeaters, Europium, Terbium and Yttrium are all used to make the coloured dots in CRTs, the lens on your camera phone is 25 per cent Lanthanum oxide (yes, really, glass is made of metal oxides) and without Neodimium and Dysprosium we’d not have permanent magnets: no hard drives nor iPod headphones.

[. . .] it is still true that we get all of them – apart from Scandium, which is a rather different little beastie – from the same ore. In fact, we tend to get them not just from the same ore, but from the same mine: Bautou in Inner Mongolia (that’s the Chinese part, not the independent country).

And that’s where our problems really start. Over the past couple of decades China has been cracking down on small mines, usually in the name of environmental policy. That even may have been the real reason, as rare earth mines can be messy things. The outcome is that now 95 per cent of the earth’s supply comes from this one mining complex and the Chinese Government has just announced export restrictions.

So, if they have a monopoly on 95% of the world supply, why won’t it hold up? Because in spite of the name, they’re not as rare as all that . . . and there are substitutions that can be made for some or all of the current application needs. By restricting the supply and/or driving up the price, China will spur new competitors to enter the field and new sources of rare earths to be developed. In the short term, it will definitely create price increases (which, of course, will be passed on to the consumer), but in the medium-to-long term they will create a vibrant competitive marketplace which will almost inevitably drive the prices down below current levels.

Isn’t economics fascinating?

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