If there is anything truly rare about rare earths, it must surely be the number of times any one of us ever thought or talked about them, until just a few months ago.
But for some, rare earths have been front of mind for decades. China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who in 1987 visited Baotou in Inner Mongolia, noted later: "The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths." In the United States, it seems rare earths has been a cottage industry for security strategists for decades. The more you think about national security, the more you come to think about rare earths.
In broad economic terms, for those of us looking at the drivers of global growth, and the forces that lift poor people out of poverty, rare earths are rather unimportant. For example, while copper production last year amounted to over 4 million tonnes, global production of rare earths amounted to just 168,000 tonnes.
Why then has the national security-obsessed team gathered in the White House around President Donald Trump suddenly brought rare earths to front of mind? Why is China's leadership toying with the idea of restricting rare earth exports as retaliation in the US tariff war? Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping added fuel to fire by visiting the Ganzhou rare earths factory in Jiangxi province, home to the country's biggest manufacturer of neodymium-iron-boron magnets.
As a non-chemist and someone who has not thought about periodic tables for the better part of 50 years, I needed to start with basic questions: What are rare earths? In what ways are they rare and crucial? Why is the US in such a sweat over them?
First things first: there are 17 elements generally regarded as rare earths " 15 of them lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium. A few of them are indeed very rare. Promethium, for example, was only discovered in 1945, and only 500-600g of it naturally occurs on earth. Nowadays, the tiny amounts needed for luminous paint, or for nuclear batteries inside guided missiles or heart pacemakers are created synthetically by bombarding enriched uranium.
But others are surprisingly common. There is more cerium (used in flints for cigarette lighters) on earth than there is copper, more lutetium than silver, and four times more praseodymium than tin.
The rarity comes from the fact that these lanthanide elements share some weird properties, rarely exist in mineable concentrations, and are terribly tangled up with each other, which makes them difficult and expensive to separate.
Perhaps the biggest shared characteristic is that they make powerful magnets that function at very high temperatures " notably neodymium and praseodymium. This makes them very important in the defence industry.
At least six of them " dysprosium, gadolinium, holmium, europium, promethium and samarium " are really good at absorbing neutrons, so play a critical role in keeping fuel rods in nuclear reactors stable. Over half of them are really important in lasers, indispensable in defence and critical in industry.
Because many of them are soft and light, elements like scandium make excellent aerospace alloys, as well as terrific bicycle frames, fishing rods, golf shafts and baseball bats. Russian MiG jet fighters used scandium.
Their softness and lightness also makes them excellent alloys for batteries. Lanthanum is critically important in Toyota Prius hybrid cars, with each Prius battery using about 4.5kg of it. Because many rare earths block parts of the light spectrum (often infrared light), they are important in welders' goggles and tanning beds.
In short, they are a thoroughly exotic group of elements that have played a massive part in defence research worldwide, with an increasingly important role in the miniaturisation of computers, mobile phones and other critical new technologies.
So when you realise that China has around 40 per cent of the world's known reserves of rare earths, and meets 80 per cent of US needs for them, you start to see why the national security-obsessed incumbents in the White House have got themselves into such a sweat.
Just two weeks ago, the US commerce department drew on work by the US Geological Survey to identify 35 minerals critical to national security. Rare earths were on the list as one of the 35 minerals, which ranged from arsenic and graphite to strontium and zirconium.
What worried US security boffins most was that for 14 of the minerals on the list, the US was 100 per cent reliant on imports. For 11 of the minerals, the US was heavily reliant on China. For example, the US gets 41 per cent of its arsenic from China, 100 per cent of its scandium and 60 per cent of its antimony (an important ingredient in flame retardants in plastics). On the back of this report, the commerce department has launched a federal strategy to optimise self-reliance and to work with allies (such as Australia) to find new sources of rare earths and other critical minerals.
Rare earths are widespread. The challenge is the price of pollution and the costs of mining and extracting them. New mines take years to come into production but as prices rise, there will be greater incentive to develop substitutes.
The American vulnerability to China as a supplier can be quickly and easily eliminated so long as US military establishment can pay the price. Whatever the current posturing, China is unlikely to try to hold US hostage and cause a price spike, which would spur substitution and new mine development.
Most important, the rare earths story reflects the emergence of the US defence establishment as an influential voice in national economic policy planning. In a world economy shaped by security concerns, the optimisation of international collaboration to improve economic efficiency and productivity is set to become a lower priority. Is this one more step down into the Thucydides trap?
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.Artikel Asli