The latest flaring of trade tensions between the United
States and China has set alarm bells ringing about the security
of rare earths supplies – and not for the first
China has dominated the global supply of rare earths since
the 1990s, and was responsible for more than 80% of global
output in 2017.
This dominance has allowed China to flex its trade muscles,
at different times, over Japan, Europe and the US. All of them
rely on the Asian giant for shipments of such elements, which
are essential for everything from hydrocarbon catalysts to
missile systems to magnets for electronic devices.
The latest major trade dispute between China and US
President Donald Trump’s administration has
highlighted how significant the East Asian
country’s monopoly of rare earths supply continues
In September, the US government revealed that it had decided
to exclude rare earths from its final list of tariffs against
$200 billion-worth of Chinese imports.
China supplies around 75% of US imports of rare earth
compounds (which totaled more than 17,000 tonnes imported in
2017), according to data from the US Geological Survey (USGS),
as well as a considerable proportion of its imports of
rare-earth magnets – products which were also removed
from the government’s list of designated tariff
Industry observers have noted that finding alternative sources
of these minerals at short notice would be difficult for US
rare-earths consumers, given the lack of active mines outside
|Lynas Corp’s rare-earths processing
facility in Malaysia
is being scrutinized by the country’s
despite being given a clean bill of health by
and international monitoring bodies.
IAEA Image Bank, via Flickr
Lynas back under pressure
The front-running alternative supplier,
Australia’s Lynas Corp, is being investigated by
the Malaysian government over the management of radioactive
waste produced at the company’s rare-earths
processing facility in Kuantan, in eastern Malaysia.
Lynas, which extracts rare earths from its Mount Weld mine
in Western Australia, has faced several years of opposition
from Malaysian campaigners to its Lynas Advanced Materials
Plant (LAMP). The commissioning of the facility was delayed by
more than a year while the company fought a series of legal
battles to obtain an operating license.
The reassessment of Lynas’ facility is at the
behest of Malaysia’s ruling political coalition,
led by the Alliance of Hope. This came to power unexpectedly in
May, on a manifesto of promises to review several major
domestic industrial projects.
If the plant should be closed, Lynas may have to send its
rare earths from Australia to China to be processed, which
would further tighten China’s grip on exports.
China has retaliated to US protectionist measures by
increasing tariffs on many imported US-origin products
– worth about $16 billion – including coal,
oil and chemicals. So far, however, it has refrained from
restricting the supply of any products to the US.
Although this would undoubtedly hit the US where it hurts
– in its high tech, energy and defense industries
– sector analysts have suggested that even small
obstructions to the sales of Chinese rare earths to US buyers
could quickly lead to a situation of severe oversupply in
China, causing prices to crash.
Nevertheless, a total ban on exports of Chinese rare earths
to the US is not unthinkable. In September 2010, China cut off
supply of rare earths to Japan for several weeks, after a
Chinese fishing captain was detained in disputed waters in the
East China Sea (although it is unclear whether the embargo was
ever actually enforced).
In the event of an all-out export ban, US importers would
have limited options. These include domestic mines, suppliers
in Australia and South East Asia and, perhaps less likely,
exporters in Russia.
But while new projects scramble to get into production
everywhere from Alaska to Burundi, new technologies could make
it easier for the US to source rare earths closer to home
– including from coal waste, which the US has in
|Coal ash, a waste by-product from electricity
is typically stored in ponds and dumps, and is an
environmental problem in many countries, including
the United States.
Waterkeeper Alliance Inc, via Flickr
Getting more from coal
A team at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL),
a part of the US Department of Energy (DoE) which is based at
several sites across the US, has developed a miniaturized laser
technology which they claim can accurately quantify
concentrations of rare earths in various source materials,
including coal and coal-related by-products.
For the past five years, NETL has been running a program
looking at alternative sources and separation techniques for
"Our primary goal is to study unconventional sources, such
as acid mine effluent and sludge, and fly-ash ponds, and to
determine if the rare earths can be extracted by more
economical means with methods that have less of an
environmental effect," the program’s lead
researcher, Dustin McIntyre, said.
NETL’s laser is versatile and can be used in a
range of environments, not just on coal and carbon-based
materials, he added.
"Our technology uses a miniaturized laser head that is
all-optical and is both driven by, and delivers data through,
an optical fiber," he told Fastmarkets.
"This architecture allows for a small probe to be either
handheld, mounted on a robotic manipulator, deployed into fluid
systems or lowered down into a test bore hole," he added. "Our
system can make laser-induced sparks in water and on the
surface of solids, and has produced limits of quantification of
rare-earth elements under 10 parts per million [ppm] in
Understandably, NETL prefers not to go into detail about the
amount of funding it has received from the DoE to develop its
One of the criticisms leveled at expensive new technologies
for exploiting rare earths is that prices for these minerals
are notoriously volatile, with the most abundant elements worth
just few dollars per kilogram at low points in the pricing
cycle. Spending millions of dollars to find new ways to produce
them is therefore economically difficult to justify.
On the other hand, investing to reduce dependence on China
has obvious benefits, and new technologies could very quickly
pay for themselves, politically as well as financially, if they
Without commenting on the costs of research and development,
NETL’s McIntyre points out that his
team’s laser technology can yield efficiency
savings in the rare earths production process, theoretically
making it commercially viable even with low rare-earths
"Our system can be used as a sensor for the separations
process and, in this capacity, would provide a valuable tool to
increase the efficiency of separations," he said.
"When applied to acid mine or fly-ash pond effluent, it
could potentially allow for the identification and
characterization of rare-earth elements in unconventional
deposits," he added. "By providing an online quantitative
measurement tool capable of high-resolution measurements, it
could reduce analytical time during the various separation
McIntyre admits that the technology still has "some way to
go" before it can compete with the handheld laser-induced
breakdown spectrometry (HH-LIBS) units used in traditional
But by pushing the limits at which rare-earth concentrations
can be detected in solids and liquids, more convenient,
everyday and environmentally friendly sources of rare earths
could become accessible.
Although it has not been specifically tested for this by
NETL, McIntyre believes that the laser technology could easily
be adapted for use in recycling to quantify rare-earth elements
in waste streams, especially because similar LIBS systems are
already being used in recycling processes to recover other
kinds of metal alloys.
NETL’s miniaturized system is designed to be
"relatively" portable, with the ability to deploy one or more
optical probes for long periods of time.
"We concentrated on making the high-energy laser head as
small as possible and without any electronics, to provide us
with distinct advantages over other systems," McIntyre told
"Our system currently relies on lab-scale equipment that
could be further miniaturized to fit the application," he
added. "Since the deployable component is all-optical, we
believe that it will be amenable to harsh environments, more so
than other downhole tools where electronics are the limiting
factor, due to their sensitivity to heat."
According to McIntyre, there has been commercial interest in
enhancing and scaling-up NETL’s laser.
"We are currently partnered with a company that provides
benchtop LIBS analysis units to the analytical market. We are
also in talks with a well services company to further develop
our technology," he said.
"LIBS systems such as ours have been taken to the sea floor
and are currently zapping rocks on Mars. We are currently
preparing our field-capable prototype and are looking for
additional industrial or academic partners to further develop
the device," he added.
Ash to cash
Another method of extracting rare earths from secondary
sources, also partly funded by the US DoE through NETL,
involves using carbon dioxide (CO2) to separate minute amounts
of the elements from coal ash.
Coal ash is a by-product of burning thermal coal to make
electricity. The US produces nearly 80 million tons per year
(72.6 million tonnes per year) of coal ash, about 43% of which
is used in cement and to enrich soil.
A team from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
Golisano Institute for Sustainability, based in New York State,
US, examined the use of compressed CO2 to selectively dissolve
and extract rare-earth elements from coal ash, to produce pure,
saleable elemental compounds.
The concentration of rare earths in coal ash or electronic
wastes is in the range of 30-1,700ppm, about 100 times lower
than that of rare-earth ores, which have concentrations of
3,000-132,000ppm. Consequently, the cost of extracting rare
earths from these secondary sources, even on a large scale,
would be much more expensive than extracting them from
Saptarshi Das, a research scientist at RIT who worked on the
coal ash study, argues that, costs aside, there are good
reasons for extracting the elements in this way.
"Coal ash and electronic wastes can contain rare earths such
as scandium and neodymium that are not readily available in ore
form. In such cases, it might be useful to look at coal ash as
an alternative source," he told Fastmarkets.
"Rare earths have very specific properties that
can’t be easily replicated or substituted. This
process is meant primarily to help the rare earths industry in
the US," he added. "While it does re-use waste from the coal
industry, based on our calculations, extracting rare earths
from US coal ash is unlikely to be financially viable, and
therefore unlikely to improve the economics of the coal mining
Another factor to consider is that coal is no longer king.
Notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s
efforts to revive the country’s coal industry, the
overriding trend is toward phasing out thermal coal in favor of
"cleaner" methods of generating electricity.
But according to Das, even a 50% reduction in thermal coal
consumption in the US would still produce enough rare
earths-rich coal ash to satisfy a large part of current
"The US generates about 80 million tons per year of coal
ash. Assuming a low average of 300ppm rare-earths
concentration, theoretically this contains 24,000 tons [21,800
tonnes] of rare earths," he said. "Moreover, the US has several
millions tons of ash [stored in] in more than 310 active
landfill sites and 735 surface impoundments."
The form of CO2 used by RIT’s researchers is
called "super-critical" and has several applications, including
in the food industry, such as for removing caffeine from coffee
In the summer of 2018, supplies of this kind of CO2 in
Europe ran short – to the surprise of many –
due to cutbacks in fertilizer production, of which CO2 is a
by-product. This was partly in response to high gas prices
coinciding with maintenance closures at CO2 compressing
facilities, and high seasonal demand.
This highlights another vulnerability to disruption of the
coal ash process, although Das points out that perennially low
prices for natural gas in North America mean that such a
situation is unlikely to occur there.
Although super-critical CO2 extraction is widely used in the
food industry, it is not currently used in the metallurgical
industry, and this represents a further major barrier to the
adoption of RIT’s process for rare-earths
"The processes we discussed… are all in the
experimental phase at this point, and I am not aware of any
groups looking to commercialize this process yet," Das said.
"Our paper was the first attempt to produce a financial
analysis of the technique."
Like McIntyre, Das believes strongly that such research,
however financially challenged the results turn out to be, is a
worthwhile investment for the future of the rare earths
Such proof for novel methods of extracting rare earths may
yet be useful, if geopolitical tensions escalate to a point
where vital natural resources are held to ransom, while
technological progress could yet make expensive lab-scale
processes economical, if not indispensable.