Guest commentator TC Malhotra contributes from New Delhi.
Asia’s third-largest economy has stepped up efforts to boost domestic production of rare earth minerals for the first time since 2004. Rare earth elements (REEs) can be used for both civilian and military purposes, including in nuclear applications. REEs such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, europium and yttrium are vital for a wide range of technologies like iPhones, X-ray machines and military applications like precision-guided munitions and lasers. They also show up in hybrid vehicles and wind turbines.
REEs are also used in many modern technological devices, including superconductors, samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron high-flux rare-earth magnets, electronic polishers, and refining catalysts. Phosphorus with rare earth dopants is also widely used in cathode ray tube technology such as television sets.
A published report in Indian business daily Economic Times claims that a high-level committee is currently working on a strategy paper to give impetus to exploration and discovery of rare earth and energy-critical elements used in renewable energy. According to the report, the proposed paper could lead to a policy on such minerals. India does not as yet have a policy on rare earth minerals.
China is currently responsible for about 97 percent of the world’s rare-earth production, and some analysts allege that China is using its monopoly to lure global high-tech companies to that country. However, deposits are also found in India, the US, Australia, Greenland and Canada, but these countries produced no material last year. In 2009, India, which was second to China in rare earth ore production, producing 2,700 tons compared to China’s 129,000 tons.
Reports suggest that global demand for rare earth elements has tripled from 40,000 tons to 120,000 tons over the past 10 years, and during the same time China has cut annual exports from 48,500 tonnes to 31,310 tonnes.
In India, rare earths are found in monosites, which are reserved for the Department of Atomic Energy. Its mining unit, Indian Rare Earth, had stopped production of rare earths in 2004, not having operated since. Currently, Indian Rare Earth is setting up a processing plant in Chhatrapur in Orissa with capacity to produce 11,000 tons of rare earth chloride. The plant will be operational by early 2012.
However, in China, rare earths are also found in non-radioactive bastnasite. In India, the exploration mandate for bastnasite lies with the Geological Survey of India. Reports suggest that most of the China’s supply of rare earths comes from a single mine near the city of Baotou, which is located in Inner Mongolia. The remaining rare earth elements supply comes from small and sometimes illegal mines in the south of the country.
Reports say that Toyota Tsusho, a part of Toyoto Motors, is setting up a rare earth processing plant in Vishakapatnam in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh; with a partial supply of mixed rare earth chloride from Indian Rare Earths. German chemical giant BASF and Indian Oil Corporation are have announced plans to produce rare earth minerals from catalysts used in the petroleum refinery sector.
Check out Stuart’s article about the current situation with China’s rare earth production.