Rare Earths Are About to Become a Lot More Rare

Interest in Rare Earths is starting to heat up once again, and it something you should keep on your radar. China’s Baotou Steel has announced its intention to start up the world’s first rare earths exchange. The move is expected to increase the liquidity and visibility of these valuable elements while reducing their trading costs.

So named because they were hard to get in the 18th and 19th century, these once obscure elements have suddenly become the focus of several converging trends in the global economy, as they are the key ingredient of magnets. There are 17 in all, divided into light (cerium, Ce, lanthanum, La, and neodymium, Nd) and heavy (dysprosium, Dy, terbium, Tb, and europium, Eu). Since the beginning of the year, the price of 99% pure cerium oxide has rocketed by 650% to $11.50 a pound.

It turns out that you can’t build a hybrid or electric car, a wind turbine, thin film solar, LED’s, high performance batteries, or a cell phone without these elements. One Prius uses 25 kilograms of the stuff. You also can’t fight a modern war without rare earths, being essential for radar, missile guidance systems, navigation, and night vision goggles.

That’s where things get interesting. China now produces 97% of the world’s rare earth supplies, much of it coming from small mines operating by criminal gangs where it is safe to say, concerns about environmental damage are nil. In 2009, China announced that would start restricting rare earth exports, possibly banning several, it is thought, in order to force foreigners to buy more of their downstream electronic products.

Such a ban was temporarily enforced against Japan last fall, when they arrested a hapless Chinese fisherman (spy) who drifted into disputed territorial waters. The ban was lifted when the man was released. Thus, rare earths made their debut at a Chinese political weapon. Similar restrictions could be enforced against the rest of us as early as 2012.

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