Monday, March 19, 2012

Rare Earth Metals - the new oil

Not too long ago not so many people think that rare earth elements, REEs, were going to become one of the precious and sought after commodities in the IT age. Or at least people took REEs for granted, thinking that, although they are called 'rare', rare earth metals exist in abundance in many parts of the world and hence no one should be worry about their supply.

But today - and you know it happened in a blink of an eye - many applications of REEs change the way we do things totally and differently. Suddenly developed nations start worrying about China's over 95% control of REEs production. No doubt REEs are very important and you can look at the non-exhaustive rare earth elements applications in my previous entry, posted as the protest to the setting up of Lynas rare earth processing plant in Gebeng, Pahang gathered pace.

Rare Earth Elements - world production and reserve. Source: US Geological Survey

Rare Earth is the new oil

At least this is what Asia Times online believes. Rare earth elements are becoming as important as oil in many aspects of our life. They are used in most high-tech products predominantly in the form of heavy-duty batteries and magnets. They are pivotal in defense technology as in lasers, radars and electromagnetic weaponry, as well as green technology as in hydroelectric power plant, windmill, hybrid cars, etc.

Asia Times online noted that US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated global reserve of rare earth elements as of 2011 as follows:

China - 36 Mt to 55 Mt (megatons). Half of the world total reserve.
USA - 15 Mt
Russia - 19 Mt (together with former Soviet republics)
Australia - 1.6 Mt (down from 5.4 Mt)
India - 2.7 Mt
Malaysia, Brazil - listed by USGS as 'small' amount

What is interesting to note here is that despite China's only 50% of rare earth reserve, more than 95% of production is currently in China. Meaning, other countries are not interested (or trying to avoid) in doing the processing/production domestically.

Is it a dirty industry?

Many developed countries with untapped rare earths reserve prefer to buy processed products from China, and many people, including rich nations rightly think that rare earth processing is best left outside of their respective countries. And who else could you depend on in doing such tasks? China.

Malaysia is currently contemplating constructing Lynas Advance Material Plant in Gebeng Pahang, a rare earth processing facility owned by Lynas Corp., Australia. This is a multi-billion dollar project that is said to benefit Malaysia financially and technologically.

Dirty or not, rare earth metals are fast becoming the goods to die for and prices per kilo of REEs have increased 10-fold in 2010. China is now reaping the benefit of accelerated growth of high-tech industry as many high-tech manufacturers are forced to relocate to China.

I suppose Malaysia is eying the same. But the situation in Malaysia is different - we import raw REEs, process and produce them, then send the finish products back to developed countries, and we keep the waste. Cleaning the dirty waste is not easy, and is far from cheap.

Don't get ourselves exploited

Malaysia must stand firm against the demands from foreign countries wanting to make Malaysia as their rare earth processing factory. If the US can put priority on its environment, and willing to buy processed REEs from China, than there must be something right about them not doing the mining and processing domestically. Remember, the US has a lot of REEs reserve of its own.

Malaysia has its own reserve of fossil oil, plenty of it. Explore it and process domestically and don't export crude oil. We don't have (very small) rare earth metals in our country - so, don't pollute our backyard by importing them from Australia.

For further readings jumps to:
Previous article: Of rare earth and Lynas - Part II
Previous article: Of rare earth and Lynas
Source of this entry: Asia Times online


tehr said...

Aku tak nampak mengapa negara kita yang sekecil ini juga mahu membina kilang memprosesnya
Rasanya lebih sesuai ambil bahagian dalam bidang lain

thomas said...

a blunder which must be corrected at all cost before it does any damage.

booo 2 u said...

only CHINESE protest.why??? Because china is the main exporter rare earth today.US concerns about this monopoly. chinese always take care of china interest, thats why

malaysia have its own small nuclear faclity in bangi since 1970's. no problems at all

de engineur said...

@boo 2 u.
I don't get what u meant by 'only CHINESE protest.why?'.
But in any case China is not protesting. China is correct in protecting its right to control the export of rare earth metals to rich nations. When you are the biggest producer of a certain commodities, don't you think you have the right to determine doing business your way, and not their way?

Your small nuclear facility in bangi is just a lab capable of producing 1MW of power if cranked-up to its ability. That's what I heard, I might be wrong. Commissioned in 1980s is more like it. Mostly for experiment rather than industrial application.
"problem" or no problem is not an issue. The issue is radioactive radiation. And radioactive radiation can kill, so, it is a problem. Human error can cause leaks and if it can go wrong, it will. The Bangi facility is not well publicised and many Malaysians are not AWARE of its existence.

But try telling the people you want to build a 1,000MW nuclear power plant in Bangi and see how many people would jump in 'excitement'.