Geopolitics rears up in rare earths

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Wind and solar power face that age-old puzzle

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