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Costing the earth: Rare earth investigation

08-10-2012 09:22 BJT

Directed by Zhu Yan

PART I - Introduction of rare earth

It’s a magical mixture.

Raw powder and water make up this rare earth recipe.

The paste is poured into a mold and fired in a kiln – like ordinary ceramics. But there’s nothing ordinary about it.

Ceramic knives are the cutting-edge of the culinary world. They are tougher than steel, shatter-proof and second in hardness only to diamond.

These knives don’t react to acid or alkali. They are famed for their exacting precision. The source of their power comes from the earth’s precious dust.

John Hu, General Manager of Ganzhou Koin Structure Ceramics Co. said, "This ceramic knife is made of zirconia and contains 5% of the rare earth yttrium. The 5% yttrium plays a crucial role - without it, the knife would crack during the firing process. It wouldn’t be this shape."

But rare earths aren’t as rare as their name suggests.

In fact, they play a crucial role in the modern world, and are found everywhere. From computers to cameras to cell phones, rare earths lay in the palms of our hands. They make our tech-driven lives possible today, and will propel green technologies of the future. The rise of wind power turbines will depend on rare earths for their success. They make it possible for transmission lines to be longer, and more efficient.

They even drive the hybrid car industry as rare earths are a vital component in electric vehicle batteries.

And beyond, these elements are credited for giving aerospace equipment, satellites and national defense technologies their durability.

While they harbor extraordinary potential, problems associated with the mining process can be just as great. But some say, it is a necessary risk.

John Burba, Chief Technology Officer of Molycorp, said, "I’ll give you an idea of what it’s like. If we were to eliminate rare earths you’d have to go back to roughly 1958 or 1960 in terms of technology, that’s how important rare earths are. You wouldn’t have color television, you wouldn’t even have CRT color television - you wouldn’t have this."

Some predict 2012 is the year mobile devices will outnumber the planet’s population. Cell phones are evidence of the electronic evolution made possible by rare earths. They are used to produce audio speakers and drive tiny motors inside handheld devices.

These tiny chips are what make them so convenient.

Gao Yunhu, Rare Earth Office Deputy Director of Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, told (also called CNTV), "Rare earths are not a bulk commodity. They are not like steel or cement where we can use as much as we like. Rare earths are not structural materials. If you insert it in with raw materials during the production process, it will improve the efficiency and performance of the raw material. So a small amount of rare earth can perform great functions."

There are 17 rare earth elements in all and are found in deposits in countries around the world. Despite their name, they exist in larger quantities than copper or tin, but unlike those elements, they are scattered - existing in small quantities across large deposits. Extracting them is economically and environmentally challenging.

Since the 1990s, China has been supplying virtually all the rare earths demanded by the global market – but hold less than a quarter of the world’s reserves. The country now faces a huge environmental debt that has yet to be settled.

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