Rare Earth Mining Becomes an Acceptable Risk Outside of China

Rare Earth Mining Becomes an Acceptable Risk Outside of China

One of the trends we highlighted in our most recent State of Green Business report, published last month, was how companies and governments alike are waking up to the risks posed by the current state of rare earth minerals.

The elements, which are key components of high-tech products from computers to hybrid car batteries, are almost entirely mined in China, and that country has recently begun using its stranglehold on global supply strategically: Embargoing shipments to Japan during a trade dispute, and limiting exports so as to keep its supply at home.

The situation has reached a point where the benefits are outweighing the risks. A case in point: Malaysia is currently at work on what will be one of the world's largest rare earth minerals refinery, potentially capably of processing one-third of the world's demands.

As Keith Bradsher writes in the New York Times, it's a bit of a devil's bargain.

For Malaysia and the world's most advanced technology companies, the plant is a gamble that the processing can be done safely enough to make the local environmental risks worth the promised global rewards.

Once little known outside chemistry circles, rare earth metals have become increasingly vital to high-tech manufacturing. But as Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind.

So the world has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries — processing factories that are barely regulated and in some cases illegally operated, and have created vast toxic waste sites.

The new plant is being developed by an Australian mining company to process materials mined in Australia -- but sent abroad to avoid running afoul of Australia's politically powerful Green Party and other concerned environmentalists.

Bradsher's article lays out the potential benefits to Malaysia, including a potential for $1.7 billion per year in exports by next year. But the risks are not insignificant, and Malaysians are sounding the alarm.

Malaysia had reason to be cautious: Its last rare earth refinery, operated by the Japanese company Mitsubishi Chemical, is now one of Asia's largest radioactive waste cleanup sites.

"We have learned we shouldn't give anybody a free hand," Raja Adnan said.

Despite such assurances, critics are not convinced that the low-level radioactive materials at the Lynas project will be safe.

"The word 'low' here is just a matter of perception — it's a carcinogen," said Dr. Jayabalan A. Thambyappa, a general practitioner physician and toxicologist. He has treated leukemia victims whose illnesses he and others have attributed to the old Mitsubishi Chemical refinery.

figure 1On top of health concerns, there's the not-minor matter of dealing with the toxic waste from the plant. Lynas has developed a plan for storing and eventually dealing with the radioactive waste byproducts from refining rare earths, involving storage pools and mixing low-level radioactive thorium waste with lime to dilute its thorium content, but the waste will still be generated.

Be sure to read Bradsher's entire article, it spells out the challenges posed by rare earths pretty clearly.

At the same time, this story also makes it pretty clear that, even if mining and refining will continue to be a key source for rare earths, companies and governments need to look at where the low-hanging fruit of rare earth procurement is: in our e-waste.

Hitachi last year announced a new technique to quadruple the amount of rare earth magnets it can harvest from discarded electronics, and during our interview with e-waste recycler John Shegerian about his partnership with Alcoa last week, he said that plastics and rare earths were the two biggest dots on his radar for materials to pull out of the waste stream.

We'll have much more on rare earths in the coming weeks, no doubt. If you've got thoughts or leads on the topic, post them below in the comments or send them to tips@greenbiz.com.

Rare earth magnets photo CC-licensed by doctorhandshake.