‘Rare Earth’ refers to a group of seventeen chemically similar elements sharing certain exceptional magnetic and conductive properties. Rare earth, in reality, is not rare, this name points more to scientific beginnings rather than actual qualities. In 1788, a mine dug up a dark rock that in 1794 was discerned as a new kind of "earth ''. It was called rare because at that point of time it was unusual to find those metals in pure form and Earth is an old fashioned term for something you can dissolve in acid. Hence, the term rare-earth. Cerium, lanthanum, yttrium, and iron were the constituents of the new found mineral .The unburied rock of 1788 was labeled "gadolinite" after its founder Johan Gadolin.
When Dmitri Mendeleev, Julius Meyer and other chemists put together their drafts of the periodic table, most lanthanides were missing. These lanthanides consisted of 15 elements from lanthanum (atomic number 57) to lutetium ( atomic number 71) .So, at that time, the presence of some of these less known elements (lanthanum, cerium, terbium, and erbium) suggested the presence of a rare earth family because of their incredible chemical similarities which then came to be known as the Lanthanide series. The elements that are incorporated in the lanthanide series have been modified with time.
The rare-earth are found in abundance, but they are scattered throughout the earth's crust. Rare earths such as Promethium are used to manufacture batteries that power spacecraft, Thulium is of immense importance for the manufacturing of surgical lasers used to treat neurological conditions and is also stamped on Eurobank notes as an anti-counterfeiting measure. The magnetic and conductive properties of rare earth metals are essential for high technology applications. They are indispensable in producing the navigation constituent of ultra-modern remote warfare technologies, like in drones and smart bombs, green technologies such as solar panels, nanotechnologies, and are also used widely in the production of smartphones. They are consequential for the functioning of the Internet, satellite surveillance, and global finance. Most electronic devices have small quantities of rare earth in them. The process of adding rare-earth to other elements is called doping, which derives its name from performance-enhancing drugs used in sports. Rare earth due to its significance is called Vitamins by the United States Geological Survey, Spice Metals in Germany, MSG of industry in China, and Vitamin of the modern economy in Japan. Small quantities of rare-earth are essential to achieving the required result.
Before the 1980s, the use of rare earth in the electronic sector was not prominent, but with the advent of information technology and revolution in the sphere of consumer electronics, the rare earth element neodymium with its outstanding magnetic qualities became important for the miniaturization of computer hard drives and speakers. Neodymium is essential for renewable energy technologies and is fundamental to the hardware of militarism, drones, smart bombs, and cruise missiles. Rare earth in the age of technology is the material basis of the hardware of global technology.
The Politics of Rare-Earth:
With the beginning of the European hunt for raw material in imperialized lands around the twentieth century, the diplomatic life of rare earth began. British and German hunts for rare-earth started to brew in India and the Americas to nourish their domestic industry. During World War I, rare-earth was used for infusions and explosives. Steel and iron alloys were used in the manufacture of weapons. The politics of rare earth in the twentieth century has been shaped by colonialism, the cold war, and neoliberalism. The nuclear arms race had its base in the rare-earth industry.
The United States and Germany both drew their rare earth and thorium from India and Brazil till World War II broke out in 1939. India restored its independence in 1947 and immediately worked on the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1948 that identified Thorium as a strategic mineral and ceased the export of thorium-rich monazite. It disrupted the US strategic supply of Monazite. Meanwhile, a comprehensive Sino-Soviet mining program was transforming Bayan Obo rare earth mine in Inner Mongolia into steel, machinery weapons. Xu Guangxian, the father of China's rare earth chemistry left his teaching position at Peking University in China in 1956 to help China's effort to build a nuclear weapon.
Geography of Rare-Earth :
Julie Michelle Klinger in her book “ Rare Earth Frontiers” argues that the Global rare earth geography is defined by the fundamental tension of absolute necessity of these minerals and environmental and epidemiological costs generated by their extraction. First, during the mining process, radioactive elements like thorium pose a health risk to miners. Second, during the refining process, toxic chemicals used for the separation of rare-earth from ore can prove to be environmentally harmful, if they are not properly disposed of. Third, improper waste management poses the risk of the introduction of heavy metals and radioactive salts in the surrounding environment, and disposal of rare-earth-containing products most of which is e-waste has its own set of problems.
How Dragon became Rare?
The Bayan Obo mine is located in Inner Mongolia, China, and is known as the “Rare Earth Capital of the World". But the United States initially dominated the production and trading of rare earth. The discovery of rare earth was a significant event for the scientific community in the US when in 1949 rare-earth was found at Mountain pass in California. By 1953, this mine was owned by Molybdenum Corporation of America (which is also known as Molycorp mine). This mine was extracting lanthanum, cerium and neodymium. Molycorp mine dominated world production till China realized its potential. The environmental cost of rare-earth mining was too high for the US to bear, as there were more than 60 radioactive wastewater spills in the US during 1984-1988. The New Environment Legislation, a sharp decline in prices, and the volatile market for some rare earth's led to the eclipse of rare earth production in the US.
A Chinese geologist, Ding Daoheng discovered the Bayan Obo Mine in 1927. The Chinese started building mines after the confirmation of the presence of monazite and bastnaesite. In Weishan County, Shandon, and Manning County, Sichuan, the Chinese went on to discover bastnaesite deposits. The Chinese were not hesitant to hire technical personnel to help and advance different methods of recovery. China invested heavily in the development of rare earth technologies and made it a policy priority by declaring rare earth as “protected strategic minerals'' in 1990. After this move, rare earth did become very important for the Chinese state. The control over the rare earth industry was centralized, supply chains were built with the state helping create a higher value market for minerals by luring high-tech companies using rare-earth and then encouraging them to come and manufacture final products in China. Since China has declared rare-earth to be a strategically protected mineral, foreign firms can engage in smelting and separation of rare earth only in a joint venture with a Chinese firm.
The Chinese came to dominate the rare earth industry due to several factors. First, the Chinese central administration’s unrelenting efforts to build native rare-earth industry to enhance technological restructuring in sectors of space, defence, and energy sectors. Second, China dominates the magnet market of the world by producing samarium cobalt magnets and the neodymium-iron-boron: two magnets that are relevant both commercially and militarily, and are also used in missile-guided systems. Third, China is working towards the strategy of monopolizing the resources of rare earth worldwide. It wanted to acquire the Molycorp mine and attempted to acquire a 51 percent stake in Lynas Corporation which possesses a Mount Weld Mine in Western Australia. Fourth, the process of obtaining rare earth is environmentally catastrophic and leads to the generation of radioactive waste. Thus, China's lax environmental laws and indirect ecological subsidy to the industry of rare earth also helped the rare earth industry blossom in China. Fifth, the deregulation in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher's tenure and the presence of Deng Xiaoping's 1978 economic reforms made it easier to transfer environmentally dangerous industries and labor-intensive industries to China.
The World Awakes
In 2010, a Japanese coast guard detained a Chinese fisherman Zhan Qixiong, who sailed very close to Senkaku islands (which are disputed between China and Japan). These eight islands are geostrategic locations and their proximity to shipping lanes along with the presence of abundant petroleum and fish makes them significant. In response to the Chinese fisherman's detention, China unofficially halted Japan's rare earth exports. Local port workers and military personnel in the East China Sea, located close to Nanjing were crucial to informing this action. In Nanjing, the memory of Japanese imperialism and massacre is strongly cultivated in people, which prompted them to take action. The local workers saw themselves as the frontline against the new Japanese aggression, as the fisherman was detained after a few days of the anniversary of full-scale Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The memory of the Century of Humiliation, lasting from 1839 to 1949 got reignited in the Chinese mind. After consultation with the central government in China, the rare earth export was resumed and the fisherman was released in September. But normal activity was restored only in November. This was the first rare earth crisis in sixty years.
Tracing the Global Production
This 2010 crisis led to market panic with prices rose to an unprecedented level, given that at that time Japan imported 40 percent of all rare earth produced globally and China supplied 97 percent of this to Japan. This awakened the world to its dependence on China for the supply of crucial rare earth on which modern life heavily depends. Following the crisis, the Euro-American powers scrambled to contain Chinese influence in this sector and emphasised on global rare-earth exploration.
Explorations began in Greenland, Afghanistan, and Brazil, and efforts are being made to revive the rare earth industry in the United States. Greenland saw rare earth mining as a ticket to prosperity, greater geopolitical independence, and diversifying Greenland's economy from fishing. But Chinese investors have shown considerable interest in mining rare earth in Greenland which has raised geopolitical concerns in the European Union and the world at large.
Following the 2010 fisherman crisis, some officials in the United States lobbied for the development of a federal industrial policy to revive the domestic rare earth industry. The Molycorp Mine on Mountain Pass, California was revived and upgraded but due to the fall of global prices of rare earth and other factors related to subcontracting and environmental issues, the company was declared bankrupt. Australia began producing rare earth in 2013 and has become the world's second-largest producer by 2019. In India, although a public sector enterprise named Indian Rare Earth Limited (IREL) was established in 1950, due to much cheaper Chinese imports, the mining was stopped between 2004 to 2011. However, mining of rare earth was restored in 2011 and India currently accounts for 2 percent of global reserves and has about 6 percent known reserves of rare earth. India must tap on its potential in mining rare earth which, in our present world, is strategically significant. Vietnam has the third-largest reserves of rare earth and has received investments from Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Vietnam plans to expand investments and collaboration in the rare earth industry with Vietnam’s Mineral Resources Strategy 2020.
The Quad and the Rare-Earth Diplomacy:
The Quad alliance consisting of India, the United States, Australia, and Japan plan to cooperate in funding new development projects and production technologies for rare earth. China's dominance in rare earth has been used by it as a diplomatic bargaining chip. Quad nations will emphasize developing low-cost refining technology which also produces low radioactive waste. They plan to arrange financial institutions to provide loans to miners and refining businesses. India accounts for 6 percent of reserves, Japan is one of the highest consumers of rare earth. As per US Geological Survey 2020, India accounted for 1 percent of production, Australia produced 7 percent of global rare earth supply, and the US produced 13 percent of rare earth globally. Thus, the Quad alliance is a significant entity in rare earth production and supply can help reduce the dominance of China in the critical rare-earth supply globally.
China has paid huge environmental costs for mining rare earth recklessly. The chemicals utilized in the separation process cause air pollution, erosion of soil, and the pools of wastewater in mines can dissolve or seep into local waters. The soil at some places is no more able to support crops and at places, water supplies have been contaminated. A rare-earth mine in Malaysia was opened and people of village Bukit Merah complained about birth defects in children and eight leukemia cases caused due to mining , the site was later cleaned up due to protests but effects persist there. Any country that wishes to enhance rare earth production must take into account the environmental aspect during policymaking. Efforts must be made for more sustainable extraction and some set of global rules of sustainable mining can be framed by an international institution that applies globally. China is working towards dealing with the environmental damage but the process is comparatively slow. Innovative clean methods must be prioritized to separate metals from the earth. Protection of the environment should be the priority along with the development of sustainable rare-earth production in India and other emerging destinations of rare earth production and supply.
By Preet Sharma
Preet Sharma is a third year student of Political Science Honours at Hindu College. She is a simple girl who loves engaging with complicated political theories. She is also deeply passionate about cooking other than reading and writing.
Julie Michelle Klinger, Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes, Cornell University Press, 2017.
Trisha Ray, Sangeet Jain, Arjun Jayakumar, Anurag Reddy, The Digital Indo-Pacific: Regional Connectivity and Resilience, Quad Tech Network Series, Observer Research Foundation, 2021.