Earlier this year, Honda Motor Co. made a breakthrough as the world’s first company to develop a hybrid car motor without using heavy rare earth metals, a group of elements previously monopolized by China that pose extensive environmental concerns during the conversion process. This move represents important environmental security implications for industries within the United States and its allies, including reducing resource dependence on China and seeking alternative forms of energy for high-tech, military, and other energy industries. Given the increasing militarization of China, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as the continued ideological clash between centrally planned and free market economies, the need for reduced dependence on China for consumer goods has never been more pressing. With the functions of rare earth metals needed across such a wide variety of industries, this shift has renewed interest in domestic production and pushed cost-effective, environmentally friendly options in a world that has seen this type of progress mired in bureaucracy and conservative pushback for decades. The improvement of rare earth metal extraction processes and the development of substitute methods pose the long-term solution of protecting and diversifying the resources used in industries. Indirectly, these changes can produce more environmentally friendly methods and encourage swift, targeted change towards this goal.
Rare earth metals are a group of 17 relatively unknown elements at the bottom of the periodic table that are chemically similar and essential to the manufacture of many high-tech products like cell phones and laptops, as well as various military and renewable energy technologies. Despite the name, these metals are actually quite abundant in nature, according to the British Geological Survey and Royal Society of Chemistry. However, they are found in tiny amounts in rocks, mixed with other elements that need to be mined and separated, a complex and often hazardous process (1). These metals are nearly ubiquitous in everyday life, causing the refinery process to be heavily researched and funded. For example, neodymium is used in the powerful magnets that power loudspeakers, computer hard drives, wind turbines and hybrid cars. Gadolinium is used in X-ray and MRI scanning systems, while yttrium, terbium, and europium are found in control rods in nuclear reactors (2). The omnipresent nature of these metals in basic and advanced technological products render them a necessity for countries like the United States and Japan, creating an uncomfortable dependency on places like China that have control over essential components of these products.
The actual process of removing ores, the natural material from which elements can be extracted, is highly disruptive and detrimental to the environment because waste seeps into surrounding areas during every step of the mining process. The excavation of rare earth metal elements requires open pit mining, which can destroy thriving ecosystems existing on the ground atop the mines and contaminate the air with radionuclides, rare earth elements, and dust containing traces of metal (3). After the physical acquisition of the metals, the refinery process allows metal byproducts to enter the atmosphere, ground, and water sources near the mine; these contaminants are nearly impossible to remove. At the end of the process, disposal proves problematic as well, as the tailings stockpiles consisting of small waste particles can be absorbed into the water and ground. Politics aside, the environmental concerns for the present process of making rare earth metals ready for industrial use become amplified, as countries accustomed to outsourcing to China do not deal with these consequences on their home turf.
For several decades, China has held a monopoly over rare earth metals, due to the natural abundance in the country and low export prices. In fact, China’s grip on the industry was so great that factories in the United States and elsewhere virtually disappeared completely, with the large Colorado-based Molycorp, Inc. closing down its earth mine in California in 2002 over economic and environmental concerns (4). But with recent restrictions on production and exports, industries that have become reliant on China for the necessary elements have been forced to seek alternatives. Since the 1980s, China invested in hundreds of mining and refinery companies and has since become the biggest producer of these elements, possessing more than 95% of the share of the global market (5). Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once remarked that rare earth metals in China would be analogous to oil in Saudi Arabia. With technological innovation rapidly increasing in the first millennial decade, the use of rare earth metals saw a spike, rising to three times the use in the decade before, with 125,000 metric tons of material extracted (6). Then, in 2010, China announced that it was restricting the metals for environmental reasons, leading to a widespread panic among leading electronics and car companies and accusations from Washington that China was hoarding its resources (7). Later that year, China halted rare earth metal exports to Japan after a territorial dispute involving the South China Sea. The following year, China capped off production at 93,800 metric tons and cut materials exports by 10% worldwide. These lowered quotas spiked prices as much as 600% (8). In a move that reflects China’s centrally planned economy, the country’s rare earths industry intends to consolidate all 208 officially recognized rare earth mines and refineries into its three large base metal companies: Baosteel, Jiangxi Copper, and Chalco.
As a result of China’s abrupt actions, public and private sectors worldwide responded to avoid the crippling effects of an overreliance on China’s environmental resources for leading industries. Japan, whose industries in electronics and mechanical engineering rely heavily on those metals in their products, promptly made a deal with Mongolia after the 2010 export ban. The deal entailed Japanese firms assisting in the search and production of rare earth metals there (9). Additionally, Japan agreed to subsidize the mining in mineral-rich Kazakhstan to drive down costs for end-user production companies. On the private sector side, Japan’s Nippon Steel and South Korea’s Posco and National Pension Service bought shares of a Brazilian rare metal mining company to secure supplies. Australia’s Arafura Resources Limited raised 1 billion Australian dollars to fund its rare earth project, which aims to produce 22,000 tons from its mine annually in the Northern Territory. Leading up to the recent new Honda model that does not require heavy rare earth material, Japanese manufacturers had been working at swift development for hybrid cars and air conditioners that do not rely on the rare earth metals in the production process (10).
Domestic energy creation translates into wealth creation. For the United States in particular, the rare earth metals industry could be reinvigorated in the country with substantial domestic benefits, and has the potential to start a trend reversing the outsourcing of manufacturing. Jack Lifton, a global expert on rare earth metals, asserts that the need for reinstating a rare earth elements industry base in the United States will require rebuilding intellectual capital (11). According to him, the rare earth metals industry is one of many industries in which the United States has fallen behind, to the point of needing to learn what was lost between the time manufacturing ceased and the present. Since the industry base was essentially gone by the turn of the century, when nearly all rare earth metal production was outsourced to China, the engineers specializing in the separation of those elements from ore either relocated or pursued different fields. Lifton argues that California mines at full capacity provide far more rare earths than the United States needs, allowing them to make profit off exports to the rest of the world. Despite China’s current claim of 95% monopoly over the industry, a US Geological Survey reported that the country actually has around 52% of the world’s known rare-earth reserves. Moreover, the United States is believed to have the second-largest share at around 3%, and Russia and Australia fall not far behind (12). For a country that has seen its manufacturing industries disappear over the past several decades, reinstating one that has ubiquitous uses in technological products could mean remarkable economic progress and resource security.
This base of intellectual capital to which Lifton refers is already in the making, as cutting edge research aims to find cost-effective and environmentally friendly new methods for rare earth metals quickly. One such process in the works is the laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry technology, which analyzes new and old rocks from the tailings waste to assess whether or not they are fit for reuse (13). Additionally, the US Department of Energy has funded a $3.3 million project at Northeastern University for the lab of Laura Lewis, professor of chemical engineering. The lab is researching how to synthesize a new super magnet developed in 2012 that is free of rare earths that could be mass produced for a market worth $20 billion a year. “We seek to produce nanostructured permanent magnets that produce anisotropies and energy products that are comparable to those of the current supermagnets using only cheap, abundant and more sustainably-produced metals,” her lab states on its website (14). Beyond university research, Toyota’s battery powered Rav4 has an induction motor supplied from Tesla, and Dowa Holdings in Kosaka, Japan, has a recycling plant that extracts valuable metals and rare earths from old electronic parts (15).
Rare earth metals could soon provide increased security and environmental stability for countries worldwide. According to Foreign Policy, there are currently 50 rare earth deposits outside of China at an advanced stage of development, which could soon threaten China’s dominance in the industry. From a national defense standpoint, rare earth metals are critical for national defense because they are crucial for enabling radar systems and guided missiles (16). Thus, having a strong research and implementation base for that industry within the United States and other countries could ensure that those places remain secure during times of potential crises with China and its allies. Furthermore, the demand for green energy like wind turbines and electric vehicles continues to mount from regulations like the Paris Climate Agreement, where signatories vowed to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius (17). Alternate forms and substitutions for rare earth metals would ensure that global warming is kept at bay by providing more immediate sources to power green energy products, uninhibited by restrictions from places like China. Edward Richardson, president of the United States Magnetic Materials Association, affirms this argument for environmental stability through internalizing the rare earths process. “If the US is to become a leader in clean-energy technology,” Richardson said, “it needs a reliable domestic rare-earths supply chain” (18).
Honda’s hybrid battery has done just that for Japan; it has succeeded in being powered without Chinese rare earths a mere six years after its restrictions. The motor company shifted away from dysprosium, a heavy earth metal dominated by China, which will protect the company from price fluctuations, as they have control over the materials needed to produce it (19). Furthermore, the magnets used instead contain neodymium, found in North America and Australia, and will drop the price by 10% and make the products around 8% lighter (20). Honda anticipates that by 2030, over two-thirds of its lineup will consist of new energy vehicles, up from just 5% now. Given the complex, costly, and environmentally challenging nature of rare earth metals usage, Honda has paved the way for other companies and industries to follow suit in response to China’s self-serving actions and increasingly hostile security stance. The Japanese motor company’s swift shift in research and technological development demonstrates the power of countries to convert to methods that do not require monopolies of resources, which can pose a serious threat to economic prosperity and community well-being during times of security concerns.
The United States and other allies are increasingly opting for different rare earth metal methods to wane off dependence from China. This economic need has the indirect security implication of supporting free economies over centrally controlled ones, and has led to research in alternative sources of energy that possess the dual benefit of being cheaper and more sustainable. Rare earth metals extraction today introduces environmental security because it prompts the need for securing resources internally, if such resources are otherwise in questionable hands, and also pushes the discovery of more environmentally-friendly methods of obtaining or replacing such elements for the sake of domestic well-being. Typically, hard power issues like security take precedent in the international scene over more soft power platforms like economic development and environmental well being. However, in the case of rare earth metals, it is clear that perhaps the hard power issue of China protecting its own security interests is actually prompting long-awaited change in environmentally-friendly industrialization and domestic economic growth.
(1) British Geological Survey, and Royal Society of Chemistry. "What Are 'rare Earths' Used For?" BBC News. BBC, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 July 2016.
(2) British Geological Survey, and Royal Society of Chemistry. "What Are 'rare Earths' Used For?" BBC News. BBC, 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 26 July 2016.
(3) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(4) "Environmental Damage." Mission 2016: Strategic Mineral Management. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.
(5) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(6) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(7) Lifton, Jack. "US Has Been 'Foolish' On Rare Earth Metals." Technology Metals Research. Technology Metals Research, LLC, 4 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 July 2016.
(8) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(9) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(10) Singh, Puneet Pal. "Has China Missed a 'rare' Opportunity with Rare Earths?" BBC News. BBC, 09 Aug. 2011. Web. 26 July 2016.
(11) Lifton, Jack. "US Has Been 'Foolish' On Rare Earth Metals." Technology Metals Research. Technology Metals Research, LLC, 4 Sept. 2010. Web. 24 July 2016.
(12) Jacoby, Mitch, and Jessie Jiang. "Securing The Supply Of Rare Earths." Chemical and Engineering News. American Chemical Society, 30 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 July 2016.
(13) Russo, R.E. "What Is LA-ICP-MS? - Applied Spectra." Applied Spectra. Applied Spectra, n.d. Web. 26 July 2016.
(14) Lewis Lab. "Nanomagnetism Research Group - Northeastern University."Nanomagnetism Research Group - Northeastern University. Nanomagnetism Group, 2014. Web. 26 July 2016.
(15) IANS. "Chinese Checker: Honda's Rare Earth Metal Innovation Is a Game Changer." The New Indian Express. The New Indian Express, 17 July 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
(16) Simmons, Lee. "Rare-Earth Market." Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 12 July 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
(17) Simmons, Lee. "Rare-Earth Market." Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 12 July 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
(18) IANS. "Chinese Checker: Honda's Rare Earth Metal Innovation Is a Game Changer." The New Indian Express. The New Indian Express, 17 July 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
(19) Reuters. "Honda Has Developed a Hybrid Battery Without Chinese Rare Earths." Fortune. Time Inc., 11 July 2016. Web. 26 July 2016.
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