Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject,
Rare-earth minerals are the 15
elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table —
known as lanthanides — plus two others. About 95 percent of global
production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex
in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern
electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets
in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium
crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact
fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights;
lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of
these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a
non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white
earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there
simply isn’t a viable substitute.
In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface
mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.
Two important facts about rare earths
help explain why: They’re not earths, and they’re not rare. China
has reached its dominant supplier position through good
old-fashioned industrial aggression, not innate geographical
superiority. Cheap labor, little environmental scrutiny, and a
willingness to sell at low cost have made other producers give up.
For competitors, like the owners of Mountain Pass, a California
mine that shut down in 2002 partly due to the China factor, that
has been a daunting combination. For the rest of us, it has been
fantastic: Affordable rare earths have helped power the
information-technology revolution, driving down the cost of
everything from hybrid cars to smart bombs.
But out of sight is out of mind. The renewable energy industry
can pretend it is green by hiding this process away in China:
Rare earths aren’t found in nature as
separate elements; they need to be extracted from each other,
a process that involves thousands (really, thousands) of iterations
of boiling the ores in strong acids. There is also almost always
thorium, a lightly radioactive metal, in the same ores, and it has
to be disposed of. (Thorium leaking into the California desert was
a more serious problem at Mountain Pass than low prices.) So
ramping up production would mean that Western countries would need
to tolerate a level of pollution they’ve been all too happy to
outsource to China.