Saturday, November 13, 2010

Urban Mining: Economically Viable Source of Rare Earth Metals?

Ever since Mainland China reduced its export quotas of rare earth minerals, will “urban mining” e-wastes soon become an economically viable source of rare earth metals?

By: Ringo Bones

The People’s Republic of China soon started reducing its export quota of rare earth minerals to the world market and none more so to Japan when a Mainland Chinese trawler captain was arrested by the Japanese navy for illegally fishing in waters both claimed by the two countries in the North China Sea back in September 7, 2010. As a country with a virtual monopoly on the commerce of rare earth metals – it produces over 90% of the worlds rare earth metals supply - Mainland China has since flex its geopolitical muscles by reducing the amount it sells to the global market and Japan. Given that all things that make our modern life possible – mobile phones, laptops, hybrid cars and even wind turbines use rare earth metals, will a shortage of this raw materials soon endanger our modern way of life?

As the country hardest hit by Beijing’s decision to reduce its rare earth export quota, Japan has pioneered a rather novel way of filling their manufacturing industry’s rare earth shortage. Dubbed “Urban Mining”, the scheme involves the reprocessing of e-wastes and obsolete consumer electronic gear to harvest the precious rare earth metals contained in them. Late 1990s era Sega Megadrives, electric typewriters, audiophile grade cassette tape decks, cathode ray tube type computer monitors and even hard disk drives of obsolete computers are recycled and processed for the extraction of the precious rare earth metals.

A Japanese company called Highbridge Computers now makes a profit harvesting rare earth metals from obsolete computer gear and other e-wastes that contain significant amounts of rare earth magnets. As amore long term solution, Kazuhiko Hono of Japan’s National Institute of Material Science have recently experimented with using lasers to dissect rare earth magnets atom-by-atom to analyze their magnetic structure and to explore the possibility of making rare earth magnets that use reduced quantities of precious rare earth metals.

Will urban mining – the recycling of e-wastes and obsolete consumer electronic equipment ever becomes a commercially viable source of rare earth metals? Shigeo Nakamura of Advanced Material Japan Corporation – one of the largest processor of rare earth ores from Mainland China for use in the manufacture of high tech goods – says that Japan’s stockpiles of rare earths are fast dwindling. If Mainland China continues to use its rare earth metal monopoly as a tool for geopolitical hegemony, it will only be a matter of time that recycling e-wastes and obsolete electronic equipment could soon become not only a commercially viable source of rare earth metals due to lesser chemical processes and energy involved in harvesting it from such source, but also a more environmentally-friendly source of rare earth metals as well. At least it is an economically viable way to recycle obsolete electronic and computer gear.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Lithium: Contentious Commodity Du Jour?

As the primary component of those rechargeable lithium ion batteries mainly used in laptop computers and hybrid cars, is lithium now the commodities traders’ contentious commodity du jour?

By: Ringo Bones

Ironically during the height of the Cold War when the only major use for lithium was in H-Bombs and pharmaceuticals for the treatment of manic-depressive disorders, it never became the commodities traders’ commodities trading of contention, not to mention the flood of venture capital investment stocks and penny-stocks vying for us to invest in them. A few decades later where our 21st Century society is currently preoccupied with the pursuit of instant information at one’s fingertips and eco-friendly power and mobility, lithium – as the primary component used in rechargeable lithium ion batteries – has now become one of the commodities of geopolitical primacy. But isn’t there enough lithium to go around?

Even though it is relatively widespread, lithium comprises only 0.0065% of the Earth’s crust. Lithium is primarily obtained from the minerals spodumene – a lithium aluminum silicate; lepidolite – a basic lithium silicate known as lithium mica and amblygonite – a lithium aluminum fluorophosphate. Nearly 50 other minerals and many mineral waters contain varying amounts of lithium and traces of the element have been found in meteorites, soils, sugar beets, tobacco, cereal grains, coffee, seaweed, blood, milk, and even in muscular and lung tissue.

During the height of the Cold War, the world’s leading producer of lithium was the country then known as Rhodesia which - since 1980 - is called Zimbabwe. At present, the world’s strategic supply of lithium can be found in the dry lakes of Bolivia in the form of lithium carbonate. According to Bolivia’s Mining Minister Jose Pimentel, Bolivia is estimated to contain 40% of the world’s commercially viable lithium supply. As one of the poorest countries in South America, the Bolivian government wants a mining deal from multinational firms that would benefit Bolivia’s poor and because of this almost all multinational mining firms are currently reluctant to make a deal with the government of President Evo Morales.

Our current high demand for mobile phones, laptops and batteries for hybrid cars just to mention a few have made lithium into a commodity of strategic importance not seen since the height of the cold war. Like crude oil, commercially viable deposits of it are found in places that have a falling out with globalized capitalism. And since the form we use it requires that the naturally occurring lithium be chemically processed into something useful for the fabrication of rechargeable lithium ion batteries, lithium – like the rare earth metals - might well be our current lucrative commodity that also raises geopolitical contention.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Beijing Rare Earth Embargo: Threat or Menace?

As the only commercial producer of rare earth metals, will Beijing’s decision to reduce export quotas of the valuable materials endanger the global economy?

By: Ringo Bones

It started over a diplomatic row when Chinese fisherman were caught illegally fishing in Japanese territorial waters back in September 2010. In protest, the Beijing government swiftly stopped selling rare earth metals to Japan, endangering the countries ability to manufacture hybrid cars. Thus making the press and the rest of the world take notice back in October 21 2010 the importance of rare earth minerals, but will Beijing’s decision to curb their rare earth metal exports eventually endanger the global economy?

Even though rare earth metals has recently became the commodities traders’ investment (or is it speculation?) hotspot du jour, from the perspective of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry or IUPAC, the elements often referred to as “rare earths” are neither rare nor earths. The rare earth family of elements are in fact composed of soft, malleable metals – and most of them are not at all in short supply. Cerium, the most abundant, is more plentiful than tin or lead – while thulium, the scarcest, is only slightly rarer than iodine. The rare earth misnomer came about because the oxides of the elements – with its earth-like consistency – were at first mistaken for the elements themselves.

All of the 15 rare earth elements have two outer electrons and eight or nine in the second shell in. They only vary in their electron compliment in the third innermost shell. But among the rare earth atomic structure, the third-shell electron difference is very slight indeed, which make the 15 elements belonging to this group a very close-knit family indeed. A typical mineral containing a single rare earth element more often than not also contains all the others.

The rare earth elements are so nearly identical in their chemical properties that separating them can easily involve thousands of steps. Because of this quirk, the individual rare earth elements in their chemically pure form did not become available in commercial quantities until the late 1950s. Nevertheless, the rare earth family in their less than chemically pure form has been used industrially since the early 1900s in the form of their mineralogical mixtures that occur naturally. Purer forms go into the making of powerful ceramic rare earth magnets like the samarium cobalt magnets used in the electric motors of today’s hybrid cars.

For much of the 20th Century, more than a million pounds of rare earth elements I their low purity form still go annually into the production of an alloy called “misch metal” – German for mixed metal. Combined with iron, misch metal products are used in cigarette-lighter flints. But the main use of low purity rare earths is in iron and steel-making where it is used to absorb impurities and improves the steel’s texture and workability.

A mixture of rare earths combined with carbon produces the intense carbon arc lights once used to light up Hollywood before being replaced by more energy efficient light sources. And a large number of rare earth compounds go into the making high-quality glass for computer monitor use by making the glass completely colorless. Or in other applications, by adding deep color depending on the combination used.

When the news of the People’s Republic of China’s decision to reduce its rare earth metal exports reached the press back in October 21, 2010, the global consumer electronics industry and hybrid car makers almost panicked since they are today’s primary users of rare earth metals in the manufacture of their goods. Unmanned drones and smart bombs made indispensable in America’s “War on Terror” can’t function without rare earth metals.

Even though the United States’ rare earth metal deposits are as abundant as the ones in the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. had since closed its rare earth mines and related processing facilities since 1990 because these can never economically compete with Mainland China due to stricter Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules. Not to mention tougher Environmental Protection Agency guidelines and unlike Mainland China, U.S. miners won’t work for slave wages. Only Mainland China’s wanton disregard of worker safety and environmental protection had allowed it to produce and sell rare earth metals to the global markets at literally rock-bottom prices and restarting the United States' dormant rare earth metal mining industry is not very economically viable at this time.