Rare-earth elementsIs rare Earth elements war in the offing?

Published 28 September 2010

China has just 37 percent of the world’s estimated reserves of rare Earth elements (REEs), but a whopping 97 per cent of world production of REEs now comes from China; only a few other countries have REEs on their territory, but environmental and cost issues have so far made mining REES unattractive; the biggest threat may come from the availability of elements needed in agriculture, most particularly phosphorus

Warnings have already been raised about water wars (“Water tensions, if not yet water wars, are here,” 15 April 2008 HSNW). Now the prospect of “element wars” is becoming more real.

Chinese customs officials are blocking shipments to Japan of rare earth elements (REEs) and companies have been informally told not to export them, Says the New York Times.

The move puts more pressure on relations already tested by the capture of a Chinese fishing boat captain in disputed waters earlier this month. The captain was finally released on Friday, says the Financial Times, but the ban on exports appears to remain in place.

The ruckus comes amid mounting concern over the supply of REEs from China (“China restricts rare-earth metals export, so Japanese devise an alternatives,” 15 September 2010 HSNW). The country has been imposing export quotas for some time, perhaps in an effort to preserve stockpiles to meet growing demand at home, and also to process the raw materials itself.

Katharine Comisso writes in New Scientist that REEs have uses in electronics, medicine, and defense. They find their way into everything from computer hard drives to catalytic converters, wind turbines to hybrid cars, sunglasses to lasers.

At present China has an almost complete monopoly on mining REEs. Despite having just 37 percent of the world’s estimated reserves, a whopping 97 per cent of world production now comes from China, according to a British Geological Survey (pdf).

Comisso notes that this is making the United States uneasy. The House of Representatives reviewed a bill last week that could end the U.S. dependency on China. The United States has its own rare earth mine at Mountain Pass in California, but it was closed in 2002 because of environmental issues (but see “Boeing helps search for rare earth metals in U.S.,” 22 September 2010 HSNW).

REEs are not the only type of element over which we can expect to see trouble. Three years ago New Scientist reported on the alarming rate at which some of the world’s reserves of rare metals are being used up. The report examined how long our supplies of various metals will last and where they are located. “The Earth clearly has insufficient resources for the global population to live as those the West do, and if wealthy countries do not change their ways, that can only end in bitter quarrels,” Comisso writes.

Disputes about diminishing essential elements may come to “dominate relations between countries,” according to the chief executive of the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry, Richard Pike. Far from being an issue restricted to concerns about the REEs or rare metals, Pike says the biggest threat may come from the availability of elements needed in agriculture, most particularly phosphorus.