They go by names you are unlikely to know, but recent experience in the specialised market for rare-earth metals has a bundle of important lessons for the world.
China is the current major producer of such metals as Neodymium, Cerium, Erbium, Terblum and a clutch of others. By major producer we are discussing the source of 97 per cent of the world’s supply.
Concern about such metals may sound insignificant – you probably haven’t heard of them – but Neodymium is used in very efficient magnets and hard disc drives used in computing and the others have important applications in high tech industries. You might have some Terbium in your home if you have any of those low energy light bulbs. The metals are important to a lot of the technologies we look to to combat global warming, such as the production of highly efficient wind turbines and electric car systems.
How did China become such a dominant player in the market? First, they have the luck to be living on top of land bearing a lot of the world’s supplies, but second and more significant, they took the market by keeping their prices lower than other producers for a long time, forcing many out of business.
Not only is China now such a dominant source of these substances, but their government has now announced they are going to cut production. Instead of 22,282 metric tons produced in the first six months of last year, the same period this year will turn out only 14,446.
You can’t entirely blames them because they not only have the world by a very tender pressure point, but extracting the metals from the basic ores creates a great deal of polluting spoil.
Now the race is on to revitalise some of the production sources elsewhere – though they are limited by the size of deposits. Let us hope that researchers will be able to find other solutions to producing the high-tech equipment we need with less dependence on China.