Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: US attempts to break China’s hammerlock on rare metals

National security matter:

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To the average American, China’s control of the world production, processing technology, and stockpile of critical metals is not their concern. However, to our military and high-tech leaders, it is a very big deal.

Our government has a list consisting of 35 metals considered to be vital to our national economy and security. While 17 are classified as “rare earth” and are not commonly known, all are critical components of products such as smart phones, laptop computers, lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicles, jet engines, wind turbines, LEDs, and sophisticated weapons systems.

The U.S. currently imports 80% of its rare earth metals from China. China sits on 40% of the global deposits and currently produces 80%, or 120,000 metric tons, of the world’s supply. Australia is second, turning out 20,000 metric tons.

The only American rare earth mine is located in California, but it has no accompanying processing plant. The single North American processing facility is Canadian.

“Even if you can mine the minerals, China dominates the entire supply chain,” consultant Jack Lifton told the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump’s emergency order under the rarely used Defense Production Act aims to accelerate domestic rare earth metals mining and processing. It also provides assistance to companies recycling lithium batteries, cellphones, and computers rather than sending them to landfills.

In specific, rare earth metals are important because of their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, which make many technologies perform with reduced weight, emissions, and energy consumption.

New reprocessing technology is coming online. Companies from Finland to Canada are focusing on recovering metals from lithium-ion batteries which have completed their useful life in electric vehicles.

For example, Finnish energy company Fortum is using a leaching process rather than melting batteries in a furnace. It has increased the recovery rate to 80%. British Columbia-based American Manganese Inc. is piloting a similar process and last week announced it is extracting 92% of the lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries in its test operation.

Mining and processing rare earth metals is messy and has a darker side. Most countries don’t want to deal with the associated pollutants. Nowhere is the contamination more evident than in China itself.

The giant Mongolian open pit mine in Bayan Obo is located 75 miles north of Baotou, a city with 2.4 million people. The mine produces the bulk of the world’s rare earth metals and does so as a byproduct of iron ore mining.

The ore is transported to Bautou’s outskirts where it separated, leached, and purified using acid baths. The spent processing water is contaminated and pumped into a six-mile long tailing pond.

The foul waters in the tailing pond not only contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium, which, if ingested, causes cancer, London’s Guardian newspaper reported in 2012.

Even with recycling, we’ll need to find ways to mine and process critical metals ores better—ways that protect workers, neighbors, and our environment.

Hopefully, the funding provided in President Trump’s executive order will help break the hammerlock China now has when it comes to critical rare earth metals.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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