China’s restrictions when sourcing rare earth elements

Have you ever heard about rare earth elements before? Most people do not know what they are but they are really important elements in many hi-technology products. China is the major producer of rare earth elements in the world, however, the Chinese government enforced restrictions on exporting them. This blog is going to explain what rare earth elements are and restrictions exist when it comes to exporting.

Global Production of Rare Earth Oxides

China supplies approximately 95 percent of the world’s rare earth metal consumptions. This natural resource can be exploited in Northern China, which is close to Mongolia. Rare earths are a group of 17 chemically similar elements that are crucial to the manufacture of many hi-tech products. The following table is a list of REEs and some of their most common applications.

Element

Used in/for

HEAVY
Yttrium TV screens
Europium Flat-screen displays, lasers
Gadolinium Computer memory, CDs, nuclear reactor shields
Terbium Efficient light bulbs
Dysprosium Lightweight, high-strength magnets used in electric motors
Holmium Super-strong magnets, nuclear reactor control rods
Erbium Vanadium steel, fibre optics, amplifiers
Thulium Lasers, portable X-rays
Ytterbium Infrared lasers, earthquake-monitoring equipment
Lutetium Petroleum refining
LIGHT
Lanthanum Hybrid car batteries, night vision goggles
Cerium Catalytic converters
Praseodymium Lasers, ceramic materials, aircraft engines
Neodymium Efficient motor magnets, disc drives, missile guidance systems, laser range-finders
Promethium Portable X-rays, nuclear batteries
Samarium Lasers, nuclear reactors, lighting, precision-guided weapons
*Scandium Efficient lights, metallic baseball bats (scandium is found in most deposits of REEs but is not always classified as a rare earth element)

fotoHigh-tech products and renewable energy technology cannot function without rare earth metals.  For instance, Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are essential ingredients in the magnets of wind turbines and computer hard drives. A number of rare earth metals are used in nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and many other products; yttrium is necessary for color TVs, fuel cells and fluorescent lamps. Cerium and lanthanum are used in catalytic converters and platinum group metals are needed as catalysts in fuel cell technology.

Since China is rich in rare earth metals, demands are very high and a lot of countries want to export them from China. However, the Chinese government announced restriction regarding exporting rare earth elements. The main reason is that China has gradually retained more and more of its rare earth elements for domestic use. Rare earths take longer to find and extract than oil, and many of the world's mines had closed over the years when China became the world’s major supplier. Shortfalls in global rare earth supplies are imminent since electronics manufacturers continue to increase their demand. Another reason is that exploiting rare earth elements has done major damages to the environment. The main concerns are the tailings. The tailings are basically the mining waste and are a mixture of unrecoverable metals, minerals, flotation chemicals, and waste water. These tailings are released into a storage area and then, this area is exposed to multiple risks like overflow due to storm water, poor construction, emissions of heavy metals or seismic activity. The price of rare earths has not included compensation for ecological damage. As prices go up, rare earths were illegally exported or smuggled to outside of China. The Chinese government considered that they had to tighten control over the industry. Because of these reasons, the Chinese government cutting quantities sent to the U.S. and other Western trading partners.

rare-earth

When sourcing rare earth elements from China, it is important to keep in mind that there are restrictions and limited quantities that other countries can source from China. Rare earth elements are inevitable for high-technology products but it is also necessary to protect the environment in China.

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