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Earth Supercomputing Science Technology

Interviews: Ask CMI Director Alex King About Rare Earth Mineral Supplies 62

The modern electronics industry relies on inputs and supply chains, both material and technological, and none of them are easy to bypass. These include, besides expertise and manufacturing facilities, the actual materials that go into electronic components. Some of them are as common as silicon; rare earth minerals, not so much. One story linked from Slashdot a few years back predicted that then-known supplies would be exhausted by 2017, though such predictions of scarcity are notoriously hard to get right, as people (and prices) adjust to changes in supply. There's no denying that there's been a crunch on rare earths, though, over the last several years. The minerals themselves aren't necessarily rare in an absolute sense, but they're expensive to extract. The most economically viable deposits are found in China, and rising prices for them as exports to the U.S., the EU, and Japan have raised political hackles. At the same time, those rising prices have spurred exploration and reexamination of known deposits off the coast of Japan, in the midwestern U.S., and elsewhere.

Alex King is director of the Critical Materials Institute, a part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory. CMI is heavily involved in making rare earth minerals slightly less rare by means of supercomputer analysis; researchers there are approaching the ongoing crunch by looking both for substitute materials for things like gallium, indium, and tantalum, and easier ways of separating out the individual rare earths (a difficult process). One team there is working with "ligands – molecules that attach with a specific rare-earth – that allow metallurgists to extract elements with minimal contamination from surrounding minerals" to simplify the extraction process. We'll be talking with King soon; what questions would you like to see posed? (This 18-minute TED talk from King is worth watching first, as is this Q&A.)
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Interviews: Ask CMI Director Alex King About Rare Earth Mineral Supplies

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    The market is loosening [rareearthi...ngnews.com] in response to Chinese manipulation. Supply is diversifying. Rest assured there will be enough rare earths for green energy boondoggles in the future. You peak oil types need to look elsewhere for hysteria.

    • At the same time, those rising prices have spurred exploration and reexamination of known deposits off the coast of Japan, in the midwestern U.S., and elsewhere.

      Alex King is director of the Critical Materials Institute, a part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory. CMI is heavily involved in making rare earth minerals slightly less rare by means of supercomputer analysis; researchers there are approaching the ongoing crunch by looking both for substitute materials for things like gallium, indium, and tantalum, and easier ways of separating out the individual rare earths (a difficult process).

      These are excellent examples of why, over the medium and long term (10+ year granularity) prices in these things tend to come down, rather than become problematic and scarce. It isn't just finding more, it's finding substitutes and alternatives all along the path of progress.

      The Ultimate Resource [juliansimon.org] is the cleverness of free people in a free society, which not only includes, but depends on economic freedom, leading to this counter-intuitive and well-established phenomenon.

      Here are some related things [juliansimon.org] about the benefits of an open society, and conservatives could learn a thing or two, too, about increasing rather than stifling immigration.

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:17PM (#48303919)

    Just really yucky to mine and process, which is why the last US mine got spun down in favor of letting the Chinese eat the pollution.

    • You are correct. In fact, there really is no shortage of any element in this world, despite the usual hooplah about helium (most of it just vented) or potassium (most of it buried or put to sea as as waste) etc. etc. The alarmist assumes no change in the way things are done, when economic reality will in fact demand it.

      • by davidwr ( 791652 )

        there really is no shortage of any element in this world

        Shortage exists when demand exceeds supply. For many truly-rare elements, the cost has always been so high that the demand never took off, avoiding a shortage situation.

        I'll use gold as one example: If prices jump and stay high, many industrial users will find not-as-good-but-a-whole-lot-more-cost-effective substitutes. If prices plummet to USD$400/troy oz. and stay there, then you will see a lot more people buying gold-plated cables for their home entertainment centers and gold dental fillings may becom

        • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @05:01PM (#48304347)

          We have to differentiate between economic and true shortage. Economic shortage only means that it is currently, at this market price, unfeasible to pursue to exploit some sources. With most of the stuff we call "rare" or where we detect a "shortage", all it means is that at the current market situation it is not possible to produce more of this stuff. There is more, but the price would have to rise to make it economically viable to exploit the source.

          That has happened and will happen. If we need some material, we will have to pay the price to mine it, drill for it or otherwise produce it. And once the price rises, deposits that are currently uninteresting will become viable.

      • You are correct. In fact, there really is no shortage of any element in this world, despite the usual hooplah about helium (most of it just vented) or potassium (most of it buried or put to sea as as waste) etc. etc.

        If you can't get your hands on it, you're out of it.

        Speaking of in the sea as waste, wave goodbye to our phosphorus.

    • by denis-The-menace ( 471988 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:34PM (#48304097)

      There are plenty of Rare Earth mines in the US but they are "Polluted" with Thorium.

      In China, they would process the Rare Earth minerals and stockpile the Thorium on the side until they could find a use for it. In the US, that is illegal.

      Now China is thinking about using the stockpile of Thorium in LFTR reactors. And guess what, LFTR reactors are illegal too because they are considered "Breeder Reactors".

      So why is all this stuff still illegal in the US? The Old-School Nuke industry wants to keep their Dyno-Reactors until they blow up, Literally. It's WAAAY too profitable to be the sole-source for solid reactor fuel.

      • by Mr D from 63 ( 3395377 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:42PM (#48304177)
        Fast Reactors are considered proliferation risks, and it is that stance of the anti-nuclear establishment that really prohibits their development. The nuclear industry would be quite happy with development of fast reactors. They have several designs proposed, developed with their own investment $$.
        • "Newer designs usually avoid the Pa removal[2] and send less salt to reprocessing, which reduces the required size and costs for the chemical separation.It also avoids proliferation concerns due to high purity U-233 that might be available from the decay of the chemical separated Pa."

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L... [wikipedia.org]

        • LFTR reactors are not 'fast' breeder reactors, although they are breeders http://thoriumremix.com/

          What you think of H.R. 4883 (113th Congress, 2013Ã"2015)?

            National Rare-Earth Cooperative Act of 2014. 6/17/2014--Introduced. Establishes the Thorium-Bearing Rare Earth Refinery Cooperative as a federal charter to provide for the domestic processing of thorium-bearing rare earth concentrates ... https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr4883/text

      • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

        " The Old-School Nuke industry wants to keep their Dyno-Reactors until they blow up, Literally. It's WAAAY too profitable to be the sole-source for solid reactor fuel."
        what a load of dingo's kidneys
        The US has invested almost nothing in civilian reactor design for decades and has built no new plants in decades.
        The DOE has no money to work on a LFTR and natural gas is so dirt cheap now nuclear can not complete. Solar also can not complete except as a "look what we are doing project". Wind is doing better but

        • by MrL0G1C ( 867445 )

          Solar also can not complete except as a "look what we are doing project". Wind is doing better but still can not really compete with cheap gas.

          I'm sorry but your facts have passed their use-by date.

          • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

            I suggest you look at the costs pr KWh and you will see that those are the facts. Wind does beat coal but not gas. Solar because of generation does not match peak use and a lack of storage tech, is nothing but a green dog and pony show for most uses. Now for remote locations and other uses it is great but for baseload generation it is still JNGE.

        • LFTR will sit on the shelf in the US.

          That's OK.
          We'll just buy LFTRs from China and India in 10-20 years.

      • Rare earth elements are not really as rare as the name implies. The deposits can be hard to identify and access but there are plenty of sites that can be utilized to increase domestic production. The US uses foreign suppliers for rare earth elements because it is cheaper than extracting and processing the elements domestically. However as a precaution the US has re-opened one of the larger rare element US mining sites when China started threatening to stop providing the materials to Japan.

    • by Ralph Wiggam ( 22354 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:36PM (#48304123) Homepage

      The Mountain Pass mine in California produced a majority of the world's rare earth supply in the 80s. After getting undercut in price by China and a bunch of EPA violations, it was shut down in 2002. In 2008, after China threatened to limit their exports, a new company purchased the mine and got some government support as there are strategic issues involved.

      I don't know if they're actually producing anything yet. If not, they're close. When you drive from LA to Las Vegas, you pass this mine. I've seen a bunch of cars there for a few years.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Pass_rare_earth_mine

      • They are producing ore, which is then shipped to their facilities in China for processing. Is that really progress?

        Molycorp reopened the mine, and then bought Neo Material Technologies [wsj.com] for its processing capabilities:

        But the deal also paves the way for Molycorp to ship minerals from its California mine to the Chinese operations of a Neo Material arm called Magnequench, in a reminder of how much technological rare-earth capability resides in China.

        • I can't read that WSJ.com article. I have a few questions that might be answered in there.

          Can the Chinese government still restrict exports? Or is there a guarantee that the US will get back the results of any ore sent over?

          And is this temporary while a new processing facility is built in the US, or permanent?

          • China can and does restrict whatever they want.
            They can stop the export, or the import.
            That is why the real issue is NOT about the mining (we have reserves in western nations that have been found).
            The question is, will be bring processing in-house, which is important to the whole process.
    • I love how you spin it so it sounds like some sort of EEEEVUUULLLL plot to make the Chinese suffer the pollution, when in fact it is much like all the other US industry that left - laws were crafted that deliberately made their businesses uneconomical, so they took the hint and stopped.

      You also in the same sentence remove any moral agency from the Chinese, assuming without thinking that the only thing such people can do is pollute. Like they're some sort of children who can't make choices. Nice one, the

  • If oil had remained the same price as it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, do you think we would have the "Franking Boom" that we have now?

    Probably not - even with modern technology much of America's horizontal-drilling/fracking oil extraction isn't cost-effective at $30/barrel.

  • As in, you can recover them by melting down used electronics. Old Cell Phones, TVs, computers, etc.

    But that only makes sense if mining them becomes a lot more expensive.

  • by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:29PM (#48304065)
    So does this mean my horde of hard drive magnets will finally be worth what it should? :)

    In a more serious note, is recycling for rare earth a viable option yet?
  • by lkcl ( 517947 ) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:30PM (#48304075) Homepage

    yes, i definitely have a question. i heard the statistic that the concentration of heavy and rare earth metals is now *higher* in landfill sites than it is in the original mines that they came from, which, if true, is a global disgrace for which all of us are responsible. firstly, is this actually true, and secondly, is anyone doing anything about the extraction of rare earth metals from the electronics in which they were originally embedded?

    • What disgrace? Can't we just mine the landfills? Might find some hotdogs and Twinkies too... So there you go. You don't even have to take a lunch.

  • Could somebody extract a couple of parentheses for these guys?

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:52PM (#48304249) Journal

    The minerals themselves aren't necessarily rare in an absolute sense, but they're expensive to extract.) The most economically viable deposits are found in China, and rising prices for them as exports to the U.S., the EU, and Japan have raised political hackles. (At the same time, those rising prices have spurred exploration and reexamination of known deposits off the coast of Japan, in the midwestern U.S., and elsewhere.

    My understanding revolves around only the crudest idea about modern mining methods and the resulting tailings & water usage they often employ. I assume that in China, they get around these costs by just damaging the environment (like dumping tailings where ever instead of having dedicated settling and filtering ponds). Could you give us some back of the envelope calculations (they could be percentages or additional yearly operating costs) of what these environmental regulations mean for mining operations in the United States versus China? There's an awful lot of talk on Slashdot and other news sites about how cost prohibitive the EPA makes business in America but I've never seen an expert in the industry actually talk hard numbers. Any ballpark estimates would be greatly appreciated. In your experience, are any of these laws and regulations less or more effective than others?

    • You don't generally see cost estimates because it's in the pennies. But those pennies add up and if you can dump the tailings in someones farm in china versus having to landfill it in the US where in China there is a million or two addition revenue the CEO can pocket which one do you think they are going to choose? That's the reality of the vast majority of environmental laws, the costs are insignificant against the product price, but the cost of not disposing of the material properly is several orders of m

      • The cost to isolate a tailings pile for, say, 1000 years is significant. Probably on the order of 10% of total costs (concrete dams rather than earthen, decent overburden covering) - so pennies, but a lot of them. Still and all reasonable but likely only in a country with a strong rule of law and strong environmental enforcement. China gets a pass on both - at least for the moment.

        IIRC, doubling rare earth costs would increase the average electronic device by a couple of dollars - small, but not insignif

  • by Chas ( 5144 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @04:59PM (#48304329) Homepage Journal

    What is being done, currently, to get the US back into the rare earths mining market?

    One of the major issues currently is that most rare earths are "contaminated" with Thorium. Is any work being done with the cooperation of the EPA to reduce regulatory burdens and possibly stockpile this potentially useful nuclear fuel?

  • With lighting, there is a technology, T5, that is twice as efficient as what you are using now. That is, it produces the same amount of light while using half as much electricity, and, incidentally, all the carbon dioxide and things we associate with electricity production.

    We are not moving to the T5 technology because there is not enough europium and terbium to make those lamps. The way they get that efficient is using twice as much europium and terbium.

    All I'm finding online about "t5 lighting" is a fluor

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 03, 2014 @05:07PM (#48304405) Journal
    Recently this year the WTO ruled against China's practices in the rare earth market [economywatch.com] but some pundits have stated that this ruling doesn't matter [businessspectator.com.au] because China controls the whole supply chain of rare earths. Would you care to comment on the efficacy of the WTO's ruling? Can you explain what part of the supply chain the US is missing? For example, we're missing mines but if we had mines we're missing refineries but if we had them we're missing ... etc. What throughput of each mineral in our domestic supply chain would we need to put the US government at ease?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      From 1965 to 1980 (or so), we pretty much supplied all of the world's RE production at one mine on the CA/NV border.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M... [wikipedia.org]
      If it weren't for environmental concerns - See: The People's Democratic Republic of California - we could easily supply our own.

      ...at least for every element that mine produces.

  • Except for Promethium, rare earths are not exactly rare. So what is the underlying problem with this shortage?

  • I've often wondered what fate awaits humanity. Will our technology gradually regress as the supply of rare earth minerals dwindles? There's a finite amount of economically recoverable reserves, and no recycling program is perfect. As the centuries roll by I imagine the minerals being gradually spread out in deposits that aren't economical to harvest - say as a thin film of rust at the bottom of the ocean, or in tiny pieces in long forgotten garbage heaps.

    Or is it possible that we could continue having acces

    • One of many reasons to increase the useful life of the products we buy. Computers are fast enough that the hardware itself can be viable a much longer term than we currently use products. At some point I'd really like to see us stop using resources for so many pseudo-disposable products. A $600 smart phone, laptop or desktop, a $1200 TV, $130 app enabled blue-ray player are all products that could have a much longer life if they were designed with longevity in mind. As profitable as it is for now, the model

    • which is what mining asteroids is all about.

      However, there are plenty of rare earth in the ocean floors. even with expected increases, it will be 100' of years before we have made a dent in the reserves.
  • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @07:47PM (#48305845) Journal
    There are plenty of new rare earth mines coming. However, molycorp was going to make a new processing plant, and then with a change of CEO, pulled out of this.
    So,
    1) Will the federal gov. help out with setting up a processing plant? My rep, Mark Coffman, used to push this as needed for national security, but, he has stopped since his friend was booted.
    2) Will the federal and/or state gov. help with increasing demand so that we can rare earth processing off the ground again?
    3) Is there any push by your group to deal with the thorium that comes with rare earth mining? Perhaps, new thorium reactors?
  • Gallium, indium, and tantalum are not rare earths. They are all much to rare for that.

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