Rare Earth Elements: A Northern Treasure Chest?

Various rare earth oxides [Photo by Peggy Greb, U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service]

by Marc Lanteigne

This month, another front in the widening ‘trade war’ between China and the United States was threatening to open over the possibility of exports of rare earth elements (REEs) being subject to an embargo by Chinese authorities. The potential effects on many current and emerging high technologies, including environmental (or ‘green’) technology applications, could be profound. As a vast majority of rare earth elements, (稀土金属 xitu jinshu), are extracted from and sold by China, debates about developing alternative sources of REEs are again taking place, with Arctic regions now receiving intense scrutiny.

The term ‘rare earth elements’ is used to describe seventeen chemical elements on the periodic table which have become essential for the creation of cutting-edge technologies including modern batteries, computers, engines, fibre-optics, lasers, magnets, monitors, and phosphors. Some REEs are also necessary for the development of more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly technologies, such as electric vehicles, wind power turbines and solar panels. REEs also have military applications, such as in guidance systems, jet engines and night vision equipment.

Rare earth elements: cerium, dysprosium, gadolinium, erbium, europium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, yttrium.

These elements are not ‘rare’ in terms of abundance, (or lack thereof), but rather in regards to the complexities and environmental concerns involved in mining them. One REE, however, promethium, used for research purposes but also atomic batteries and luminous paints, is uncommon since it only exists as a by-product of uranium fission and not in nature. Many REEs are widely distributed, thus often requiring a comparatively high amount of land used for extraction and result in greater risks of long-term damage to the environment as compared with other extractive industries. The potential environmental costs have made the prospect of rare earth mining unpalatable to many governments. For example, there have been protests and political pushback in Malaysia over rare earth mining there, including by the Australian firm Lynas, due to concerns about land and water pollution from radioactive waste products.

REEs are also time- and labour-intensive to mine and then process, especially since different types of rare earths are often found grouped together, necessitating further steps to separate them. Moreover, as they are a finite resource, concerns have been raised over whether supplies can continue to meet demand, especially as calls for ‘green’ alternative energy sources grow louder.

Shards of dysprosium, a rare earth element [Photo via Wikipedia]
Rare earths have been found, and in some cases mined, in many countries in different parts of the world, including in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Myanmar (Burma), South Africa, the United States and Vietnam. However, China currently represents over eighty percent of rare earth exports to global markets, due to its extensive mining operations which have been developed over decades [pdf], both in southern provinces such as Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Jiangxi and Sichuan, and as well as in the northern regions of Nei Mongol (Inner Mongolia), notably the Bayan Obo Mining District (白云鄂博矿区).

As explained in the comprehensive 2018 book China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths, since the discovery of rare earths at Bayan Obo in 1927, the government of China moved to fully develop those resources at the site and in other parts of the country, with REEs being designated as a strategic (and protected) resource by the then-Deng Xiaoping government in 1990. This led to the industry being placed under stronger central government oversights, and restricted entry of foreign firms into the sector. Once China began to dominate the REE market, the country developed the ability to greatly influence prices and discourage competition, since the 1990s.

Over the past decade, the perception of Beijing’s near-monopoly on REEs has raised economic security concerns even before the current Sino-American trade war began to accelerate last year. This month, hints began to appear by the Xi Jinping government in China that the country may seek to restrict Chinese REE exports as economic relations between Beijing and Washington continue to sour.

Last week, President Xi visited [paywall] an REE firm, JL Mag Rare-Earth, in Jiangxi Province, along with chief Chinese trade negotiator and Vice-Premier Liu He. The visit implied that Beijing was considering using a ‘nuclear option’ of restricting REE trade with the United States, either directly or more subtly by diverting rare earth supplies for use by Chinese domestic industries. It was during his Jiangxi visit that President Xi suggested China needed to prepare for a new ‘Long March’ in the face of ongoing US trade pressures. One editorial in China’s conservative Global Times news services noted that rare earths could be an ‘ace’ for Beijing in the trade dispute, and a prominent professor at Renmin University in Beijing, Jin Canrong, went even further by suggesting that rare earth trade with the United States be banned altogether.

The result of these veiled threats has produced stock market jitters and an uptick in the stock prices of rare earth firms. This was not the first time Beijing’s dominant position in REEs has been used for economic leverage. In 2010, during a period of tensions between China and Japan over the detaining of a Chinese fishing vessel in near the disputed Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea by the Japanese Coast Guard, shipments of Chinese REEs to Japan were temporarily halted, illustrating the vulnerability of Japanese industries to rare earth supply shocks. Since that incident, Beijing sought to more tightly control and restrict rare earth exports, claiming concerns about the longevity of its current REEs supplies, but in March 2014 Beijing lost a legal case brought against it by the United States to the World Trade Organisation, as Washington successfully argued that such restraints were in violation of WTO rules.

The possibility of REEs being caught up in global trade disputes and rising economic barriers may provide an interesting opportunity for the Arctic, especially Greenland but also potentially for other far northern regions where rare earth supplies have either been found or expected to exist. The prospect of opening up mining in Greenland has become more attractive due to both the plentiful supplies of base and precious metals (including REEs), as well as gemstones, which have become more accessible due to climate change and more specifically due to the erosion of both land and sea ice. According to statistics [pdf] from the Greenland government, REEs are seen as being extractable in several sites along the island’s coast, including at Kap Simpson, Qaqarssuk and Sarfartoq.

Display of the periodic table of the elements, Houston Museum of Natural Science, June 2010 [Photo by Ed Uthman via Wikimedia Commons]
However, by far the most visible potential rare earth mining project in Greenland has been at Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit), near the town of Narsaq in southern Greenland. The site holds stocks of uranium and zinc as well as rare earths, notably [pdf] dysprosium (used for hard drives, lasers and magnets), neodymium (capacitors, electric motors, magnets), praseodymium (lasers, magnets and carbon arc lamps), and terbium (magnets, lasers, phosphors). The project is currently overseen by Subiaco, Australia-based Greenland Minerals, in partnership with Shenghe Resources headquartered in Chengdu, China.

As in other parts of the world, the possibility of expanded mining in Greenland has raised environmental debates there, including in the case of the Kvanefjeld site. It remains unclear when this mine may commence operations, and there is the greater question of whether Greenland will become a cornerstone source of REEs given the still-dominant position of China, as well as potential competition from other parts of the world.

Another area of the Arctic appeared poised to become a prospective source of rare earth this month in the wake of an announcement that an agreement had been reached between Inuit groups in the far-northern Québec region of Nunavik and mining interests, including Commerce Resources of Vancouver, which may open the door to the founding of Canada’s first rare earths mine at Ashram, located about 130 kilometres south of the town of Kuujjuaq. The Ashram site was studied as being a source of numerous types of REEs with cerium (used for catalysts and oxidising agents), lanthanum (specialised glass and hydrogen storage), and neodymium predominating [pdf]. The project, should it come to fruition, may form a major part of the ongoing ‘Plan Nord’ development plans by the Québec provincial government.

Rare earth extraction in Greenland, Canada and other parts of the Arctic will depend significantly not only upon emerging market demands but also the costs and time involved in developing these resources and the successful addressing of questions about environmental risks of such mining in regions which are highly sensitive to pollution and other similar damage. Nonetheless, as REEs continue to increase in global demand, and with the possibility of rare earths being caught up in an increasingly unpredictable great power trade conflict, the far north may be more commonly viewed as an emerging alternative source for what has been called the ‘vitamins’ of the modern socio-economic system.