I am in Beijing, where I am attending and have spoken at the 2010 China Rare Earth Summit, part of the 6th International Conference on Rare Earth Development and Application, run by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths. I was honored to be one of only three American guest speakers. The other two were America's most well known academic experts on rare earths, Professor Karl Gschneidner of the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University and Professor William J. Evans of the University of California - Irvine.
The conference has 300 attendees who are a comprehensive group, representing the academic, business, and governmental sectors of the Chinese rare earth research (academic and business), development, mining, refining and end use manufacturing industries.
I was asked to speak about "The American Perspective of the Rare Earth Supply Issue." My presentation and commentary will be posted shortly on the Technology Metals Research web site for review.
Although most of the nearly 100 speakers in the 6 technical tracks, and most of the 222 papers listed on the program were highly technical, interspersed among them were some that were purely descriptive of mines, processes, and important sectors dependent on the rare earth metals such as permanent magnets, batteries, phosphors, wind energy generation, and other clean-tech/green-tech applications.
My colleagues Dudley Kingsnorth of IMCOA and Judith Chegwidden of Roskill Information Services, were also both invited guest speakers and Ms. Chegwidden was the moderator of the introductory session at which I spoke. Their respective presentations might be available online in the near future.
I am here in China to find out what the Chinese rare earth industry is doing and where it is going. I have a scientific background, and was once a researcher myself. I also worked with rare earths in product development for phosphors and batteries, so I was interested in and able to understand most, if not all, of many of the technical papers I heard. The biggest surprises though, came from the survey papers on clean-tech/green-tech applications of the rare earths.
It is obvious from the vantage of the rare earths' sector in China, that China is simply racing ahead of the rest of the world in volume production, as well as development of state-of-the-art clean tech and green tech products.
For example, it was pointed out that China built and installed 13 gigawatts of wind turbine electricity generating capacity last year, using rare earth permanent magnets for efficiency and low maintenance. The astounding prediction was made that by 2020, China will install 330 gigawatts more wind power capacity, with each 1.5 megawatt generator require one metric ton of neodymium-iron-boron magnet alloys, which, if they contains 34 weight % neodymium, would mean that the Chinese wind power industry would need a further 70,000 t of neodymium, approximately 3 1/2 times the 2008 production of that metal - all as new added material - between now and 2018-19.
I plan to write much more on this topic during the next few weeks, but I believe that the trend is clear. China will be the driver for, and the home of, the most demand in the world for the rare earth metals from now on.
There wasn't much talk about Molycorp in China, other than to hope that if it gets into production, Chinese customers will have an opportunity to buy its products. The only non-Chinese rare earth mining venture present was Great Western Minerals Group. Its chairman gave a talk on his "mine to market" strategy, and he told me he was there both because he was invited, and in order to continue negotiations for a strategic alliance with a Chinese refiner, on an African project the goal of which is to supply Great Western's UK alloy plant, Less Common Metals, with feedstock metals for its operations from GW's South African venture at Steenkampskraal.
Japanese companies and academics were well represented and there were even French and Russian miners and refiners. I was disappointed that there were so few Americans, and as for the American media I saw only public radio's Marketplace (who interviewed me) and the New York Times' Asia correspondent.
If the rare earth supply issue is so important to America's security, why then do so few Americans and almost no American media come to the world's premier rare earth informational event? It is most likely because China is the center of the world rare earth industry, in all of its aspects.
The Chinese and Japanese magnet industries both need heavy rare earths. They may even need light, imported, non-Chinese, rare earths sometime before 2015, but I think it is clear that after 2015 they will both need heavy rare earths from outside of China. Japan may actually need both types of rare earths from the outside by 2015, if Chinese demand should exceed or meet its domestic supply capability by then, which is probable, so that China no longer is willing to export rare earths.
If all roads lead to Rome then certainly the home of all metals is now China.
Disclosure: I have a LONG position in Great Western Minerals Group stock.
Jack Lifton writes about rare earth elements and other nonferrous strategic metals at his own site, www.jackliftonreport.com.