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The world journeys into the Green Age and renews old themes. Chapters of political history grow thick with the value that accrues from whatever.
So it was and ever shall be, for better and worse. Biblical enterprises valued gold, frankincense and myrrh. Explorers in the Age of Discovery sought gold and silver fit for royal heads and sought trade routes to faraway lands of spices and silk.
The Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople in 1453 and blocked European ventures. Access was cut off to North Africa and the Red Sea – important trade routes to the Far East.
Recent trade wars revolve around oil riches. Now comes the Green Age with its computers, energy efficiency and renewable energy, about to give “black gold” a run for its money.
Breaking News! Sept. 22, 2010 - Hong Kong: Fishing skirmish in disputed waters worsens, China halts export of rare earths to Japan.
Rare earths are the latest resources to roil world politics. The Green Age comes of age.
“Rare earth” is its own category of 17 elements. “Rare” in the name implies scarcity, but denotes a set of traits.
The tag is an artifact of history tied to chemical behavior and atomic order.
The unfamiliar atoms work wonders in copious high-tech products, from wind and solar power to lasers and TV screens. Hybrid cars and wind turbines get more efficient by using strong lightweight magnets that need the rare earth element, neodymium. Batteries in the Prius need lanthanum.
Compact discs use dysprosium. Lasers use praseodymium, samarium and europium, among others. Indium boosts the capacity of solar panels, though new materials are on the horizon. LEDs and cell phones call for rare earths. The picture grows clear.
It looks the same in the military. Rare earths are used in rangefinders on tanks, sonar systems for ships and subs, control vanes on smart bombs and missile guidance motors.
China now mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth materials and is the world’s source for 99 percent of some of the most prized rare earths, selling for several hundred dollars a pound.
The Green Age, like the environment itself, is a curious weaving of many threads.
Major deposits of rare earths also are found outside of China. Mountain Pass, Calif., not far from Las Vegas, has a notable history in mining the minerals. The rich ore deposit was discovered by two uranium prospectors in 1949.
The nuclear hunters found the site while tracking the high radiation from thorium, radium and uranium.
Geochemistry settles radioactive minerals in with rare earth ores, which makes problems in processing rare earths. Mills risk leaks of radiation and disposing of radioactive thorium is difficult and costly.
Molybdenum Corp. of America began extracting rare earths at Mountain Pass in 1952. Production grew and dominated the world market from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Problems grew, too. Between 1984 and 1998, some 60 spills left radioactive wastes on the desert floor near the Nevada border. The spills amounted to 600,000 gallons, for which fines and settlements totaled $1.4 million. The Mountain Pass mine closed in 2002, and plans now to reopen in 2011. The mine closed for a sum of reasons.
One was prices for rare earths were driven down when the Bayan Obo mine opened in China in the mid-1980s. Bayan Obo has a wider variety of rare earths than Mountain Pass, especially the more desired ones on the heavy end. The U.S. mine’s environmental problems also contributed.
New technologies are cleaner and more efficient. The change they bring is a lens for seeing the things that stay the same. The age-old puzzles of human nature and resources persist.
By John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water