Despite a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision that China’s restriction of rare earths export quotas is a violation of trade rules that nation has announced that it will further reduce the quotas for export. EU Trade Spokesperson John Clancy said that the decision was highly disappointing.
Mr Clancy said that the European Union continues to encourage the Chinese authorities to revisit their export restriction policy to ensure there is full, fair predictable and non-discriminatory access to rare earth supplies as well as other raw materials for EU industries.
China on the other hand is yet to decide if it should appeal the raw materials ruling given by the WTO. It has a deadline of September 2, 2011 to appeal. Beijing made the announcement of adding ferro alloys to the restricted export quotas list in the second half of 2011.
Rare earth is the collective name for 17 kinds of metals, including lanthanum and gadolinium. The rare earths either possess strong magnetic force or can enhance other metals’ high temperature capabilities. These are commonly used in almost all industries, particularly in cutting edge fields like new energy sources and high-tech products.
With China controlling 97% of the world’s rare earth supply most nations are worried about meeting their future demands of the elements. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even publicly called for the United States and its allies to reduce dependence on Chinese rare earth production, saying that this was a wake-up call for them.
Nations are looking for alternative sources. Alaska’s Arctic region holds vast deposits of oil, gas, precious metals and rare earths. Apollo astronauts brought back lunar soil samples that proved the Moon is chock-full of rare earths. So new developments may aid in easing the tight supply situation.
Another recently developed source of rare earths is electronic waste and other wastes that have significant rare earth components. New advances in recycling technology have made extraction of rare earths from these materials more feasible, and recycling plants are currently operating in Japan, where there is an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths stored in unused electronics.
Significant quantities of rare earth oxides are found in tailings accumulated from 50 years of uranium ore, shale and loparite mining at Sillamäe, Estonia. Due to the rising prices of rare earths, extraction of these oxides has become economically viable.
Nuclear reprocessing is another potential source of rare earth or any other elements. Nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium produces a full range of elements, including all their isotopes. However, due to the radioactivity of many of these isotopes, it is unlikely that extracting them from the mixture can be done safely and economically.