Sohrab Darabshaw, contributes an Indian perspective on industrial metals markets to MetalMiner. This is part one of a three-part series on International production of rare earth elements.
A new story is unfolding in Asian rare earths production.
China, long considered to be the king of RE metals production such as lanthanum and dysprosium, suddenly finds a new group of contestants in the fray to supply the trace elements used in everything from cell phones to fighter jets. These new players may not have the same production and export muscle as China, but seem to match the dragon in their national intent to identify and exploit large RE deposits. Efforts by China, itself, to source new avenues of the metals also made the headlines last week.
Two of the most “non-traditional” producer nations are now being touted as having the potential to become the new global centers of RE production. Who are these upstarts? Afghanistan and Kazakhstan. The latter’s government recently approved a plan that involves a major increase in the production and development of the country’s RE sector in the next four years.
A news report from Afghanistan’s Khaama Press quoting a survey report by US scientists (unnamed) said Afghanistan’s rare earth elements (REE) had been valued at about $1 trillion. Which essentially means the country is sitting on one of the largest troves of minerals in the world.
The report further added that the war-torn nation, where it was announced the US military will retain a large presence, may hold 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore and, most importantly for technology companies, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium.
The global rare earths eco-system has always been quite complex, riddled with geopolitical implications. The world has looked on with envy at China for the past three decades, since it is said to have 95% of all of the rare metals on Earth. And it is also the largest “consumer” of REs. China’s export quota was even accused of being an elaborate way to hoard REs.
All that changed when on the last day of 2014 when China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that it had scrapped the quotas restricting exports of RE minerals and would replace them with a system of export licenses. The quotas had been in place since 2000. This was good news for RE consuming nations such as Japan, the US and Taiwan. Yet, it was not a complete panacea to foreign computer, cell phone and defense industry manufacturers. The last word on China’s sudden willingness to export may be tied in to the announcement of a new RE policy by the Chinese Government which will not come until mid-2015.
In the meantime, China’s neighbor, India, with whom it has had a troubled past, has gone about stepping up its own RE research and production.