By XiaoZhi Lim
In July 2010, the Chinese government sent a chill through the world’s high-technology industries when it announced a 37% cut in export quotas for rare-earth elements — a group of 17 metallic elements that are essential ingredients in display screens, low-energy lighting, high-powered lasers and a host of other twenty-first-century products.
China has a near monopoly on production of these elements, generating 97% of the world’s supply in 2010. So although Beijing said that it was just trying to clean up a particularly dirty sector of its mining industry, the cutback sent rare-earth prices soaring and raised the spectre of major economic disruptions. The reality turned out to be less dire: several Western mining companies have now started producing rare earths, and China, responding to demands from the World Trade Organization, has pledged to end the cutbacks by 2 May this year. Nevertheless, the incident prompted the United States and Europe to launch major research initiatives aimed at securing non-Chinese sources of rare earths. Those programmes are now beginning to achieve results.
Central to the effort is a challenge for chemists. The rare earths are chemically almost identical, generally found together in ore deposits and extremely difficult to separate: the standard method involves some 300 steps and the copious use of hazardous chemicals. China has a network of extraction plants that can undercut any other producer in the world, thanks to the country’s historically lax attitude towards costly environmental safeguards, along with factories that incorporate the elements into devices. But if chemists can come up with easier, faster, greener and, above all, cheaper extraction methods, then the balance could shift. Other countries could afford to exploit their own rare-earth deposits, and to recover rare-earth elements from their electronic waste.
Continue reading at Nature. Originally published on Apr 22, 2015.