There’s been some discussion recently about rare earths in the light of tensions between China and Japan. Here’s a brief description of rare earths for anyone who’s not certain what they are, from the Wikipedia essay on rare earths,
… rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, namely scandium, yttrium, and the fifteen lanthanides.
Despite their name, rare earth elements (with the exception of the highly unstable promethium) are relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper). However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are not often found in concentrated and economically exploitable forms, generally called rare earth minerals. It was the very scarcity of these minerals (previously called “earths”) that led to the term “rare earth”
Here’s what started the tensions (from the NY Times article by Keith Bradsher),
Chinese customs officials abruptly halted the processing of paperwork for shipments bound for Japan on Sept. 21 . The shipments were halted during an acrimonious dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler that rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels two weeks earlier near islands long controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
Here’s why they’re so important,
Rare earths are vital to the production of a wide range of industrial products, including automobiles, glass, oil refining, computers, smartphones, wind turbines and flat-screen televisions. The military needs them for missiles, sonar systems and the range finders of tanks.
Here are some of the consequences of the ban,
Many factories in China assemble products that require high-tech components from Japan that use rare earths. Some of these factories, which employ large numbers of workers in China, have begun running low on components as Japanese suppliers ran short on some of the more obscure rare earths needed to manufacture them, two rare earth industry executives said.
Electronics industries have been affected, particularly camera manufacturers, leading to a desperate scramble for raw materials that has even included buying tons of obscure rare earth compounds from corporate stockpiles in Europe and airlifting them to Japan.
All 32 of the authorized rare earth exporters in China have refused to increase their shipments to other countries during the unannounced ban on shipments to Japan, making it difficult for Japanese traders to obtain supplies indirectly.
As a result of the blocked shipments, some rare earths now cost up to 10 times as much outside China as inside; the Chinese government has started a vigorous campaign to prevent this from leading to smuggling.
Brasher’s article is very interesting and I do recommend reading all of it.
There has been one other consequence to this concern over a dependency on China’s rare earths (excerpted from the Nov. 23, 2010 article by Ariel Schwartz on Fast Company),
There’s just one problem: The metals are only found in high concentrations in a few sites in China, the U.S., and Australia–and China has threatened to stop exporting its supply. But instead of expanding rare earth metal mines, what if we look for more sustainable replacements?
Enter Nanosys, a company that offers process-ready materials for the LED and energy-storage markets, among other things. Nanosys has been thinking about rare earth material shortages for years, which is why the company manufactures synthetic phosphors out of common materials–not the rare earth materials (i.e. yttrium) usually used in phosphors.
“We make a semiconductor phosphor that employs a nanomaterial called a quantum dot,” explains Nanosys CEO Jason Hartlove. “It’s made out of indium phosphide and phosphorous, and the synthesis process is all in the lab. There’s no heavy metal mining, no destructive mining practices.”
Nanosys’s QuantumRail LED backlighting device is made out of quantum dots, which can purportedly generate brighter and richer colors than their rare earth metal counterparts–all while delivering a higher efficiency and lower cost.
I don’t know how close they are to producing these quantum dots in industrial quantities but the appeal of a process that lessens dependency on resources that have to be mined and/or be used to apply political pressure is undeniable. If you’re interested, you can visit the Nanosys website here.
(They talk about ‘architected’ materials. I view that word with the same enthusiasm I have for ‘impactful’. These people should never be allowed to invent another word, ever again.)