India is all set to fire a fresh salvo against China in the battle for rare earths (RE), a group of 17 elements that are used in virtually all equipment that run on modern technology.
By the end of this year, India will make a new mark on the RE global production map when it starts operation on a 10,000-ton monazite processing plant in the eastern state of Odisha.
Monazite is a reddish-brown phosphate mineral, and is an important ore for thorium, lanthanum, and cerium. India has rich deposits of monazite, valued for its relative hardness and density. Along with other rare earth elements, it is used in the manufacture of computer and television screens. Sometimes, because of the presence of thorium within monazite, it can be radioactive.
According to R. N. Patra, CMD of Indian Rare Earths Limited, dry runs of the new plant shall start soon and if things goes well, the plant will be commissioned by December.
Set up with an investment of about US $25 million, the Odisha plant is expected to produce 5,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides, which would be about 4 percent of global production. Around 2,250 tons of it will be separated at IREL’s Aluva facility in the southern state of Kerala for domestic use, while the rest shall be exported.
Rare earth metals are used in almost all types of modern day equipment – from missiles, satellite and communication systems to hybrid cars and energy efficient lighting systems. They are not really rare, but have acquired the label because they are never found in concentrations enough for mining operations to become commercially viable.
China commands 97 percent of the monopoly in this field, though some agencies say it has only 37 percent of global rare earth reserves.
Continued in Part Two.