Rare Earths – The Chinese Way
I have been reading many articles, tweets and comments around the Chinese rare earths industry for quite a while now. Good things, bad things, some well-informed, others obviously not! So I thought I would put pen to paper, so to speak, and detail my knowledge, experiences and thoughts about the way the Chinese “do” rare earths. This article, on their journey to success, may assist those who are preparing for a similar ride, or maybe just be for information purposes. Here goes………
My China education began 30 years ago when I was studying Asian Culture. A continuing theme resounded. The China way is not a Western way. It is not about me. It is about us and what I can do for we. By this I mean, for example, education and University qualification is not about allowing me to determine and make my future success, to become successful as it is in the West; it is about me helping business, economy and therefore my community, my country to succeed. This theoretical “me for we” philosophy was evident in all readings and was later very-much reinforced with on the ground demonstration of how this was working in the Chinese rare earths space.
It was a cold day in Baotou, 10 years ago, when 2 green Aussie junior explorers and Dudley Kingsnorth presented our project to the Baotou Research Institute for Rare Earths (BRIRE). BRIRE offices and laboratories are a city block sized complex of concrete, glass and plenty of stainless steel. We presented in almost an amphitheatre sized room that would make most University lecture rooms proud. There were about 30 BRIRE personnel at our presentation. I remember being amazed and impressed that back then a rare earths research effort with 30 people was very impressive. I questioned my now good friend, Wang Yan, “How many engineers are involved in the rare earths space in China?”. “Twenty thousand engineers and five thousand PhD’s” was the reply. I was gob-smacked. Politely, she asked in response, “How about Australia? How many people in rare earths research?”. My reply was massively under-whelming as I counted on my right hand, “Me, Karen, Doug (ANSTO people) and …….”. How could they have 25,000 qualified people at the very start of a rare earths revolution? How can you just create such a qualified work force in an industry on the cusp of such world-challenging growth? At that stage I wasn’t prepared to ask the right questions to find that out, but I vowed that I would attempt to work out how they were doing this. There must be a lesson or two to learn. And what a lesson it has become. Or more accurately, what a model of how to achieve.
My next enlightenment on the China way was at the GRIREM Sm metal smelting plant in Beijing a couple of years later. I was told that this facility was producing more than half of the world’s samarium metal and was continuing to aspire to be better and bigger to match the now rapidly expanding China dream of rare earth world dominance. I was now prepared with an open mind and the right questions. And learned the following…….
Budding engineers start work on the factory floor. They start below the bottom rung. They are fed, housed, but most importantly they are progressively trained. They are trained for rung one, then two, then rung three, up through the operating ranks and continue working and studying towards an eventual degree. Then upwards into management and research. Back in my day there were similar concepts called cadetships. But starting as a day crew on clean-up? We only had to do such work on uni-vacation periods! Not sure how our system would handle or accept that today; or our university aspirants would respond; but it is a very successful model in the Chinese rare earths space. Everyone understands all levels of the business having “been there and done that”; and forever owes a significant responsibility to the organisation for training them to their new level in life. But how does the University part; the qualification part work?
Using GRIREM as an example, GRIREM is certified/accredited by the China University system to train and educate in a number of disciplines. For example, chemical engineering, materials science, phosphor technology and a few others. These disciplines very purposefully match the production, and as importantly, match the research and development activities of GRIREM. So GRIREM has an ongoing development program for it’s labour of the present, it’s management for the medium term, and it’s researchers for the future. The next point I find a little contentious from an academic standard view point is that GRIREM actually issue the qualification once they determine the required level of academic achievement is attained. And where appropriate, up to the level of PhD. GRIREM has Professsor equivalents amongst its production, management and research personnel !
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The other very interesting outcome is that the results of the research and development go straight into the on-site factory and go straight into improving the bottom line for the business. So all people are working in the business, for the business.
So a business trains its operators to become its managers and researchers. It retains its staff and engineers for what was stated as a “life-long” relationship, where the company provides all training, salary, accommodation; all for life. In this manner, a business is in direct control of its numbers of people in all grades and qualifications; andit’s human resourcing needis developed at a pace that matches its current, medium term and long term aspirations.
So in this way, a rapid expansion of the rare earths space was created at first in oxides extraction, then in elemental separation, then through metals production, alloying and onwards. The same program and processes occurring in magnet technology, phosphor technology, and all other rare earth applications. Quite a process. And as we now know, quite successful.
Do you see the issue of East versus West in this approach? Can you see why engineers of the West would not accept this model? Starting below the bottom rung? Life-long dedication to the one employer! Lack of opportunity to create a business of your own? This is the price of a culture that puts we in front of me. It appears to be working in the rare earths space in China as their society moves from a very socialist position to a more capitalistic model. How will it pan out in the future? Only time will tell.
Mr Mackowski is a qualified engineer in mineral processing with over 30 years technical and operational experience in rare earths, uranium, industrial minerals, nickel, kaolin ... <Read more about Steve Mackowski>