EDITOR: | October 16th, 2015 | 5 Comments

Rare Earths – The Chinese Way

| October 16, 2015 | 5 Comments
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China-StockpileI 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 !

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.


Steve Mackowski

Editor:

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>


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Comments

  • Tim Ainsworth

    Steve, last para Chinese White Paper on RE reads somewhat idealistically like your statement: “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.”

    news.xinhuanet.com/english/business/2012-06/20/c_131665123_8.htm

    “The sustained, healthy development of the rare earth industry is crucial to the sustainable use of rare earth reserves as important natural resources of the world, as well as to the protection of Planet Earth, which is home to all mankind. Nowadays, as all countries depend on each other for existence and prosperity, they should strengthen cooperation and share responsibilities and achievements. In future, China will adhere to the Scientific Outlook on Development, improve its rare earth policies, reinforce supervision over the industry, and work closely with the international community to safeguard a fair and rational order of the rare earth market, better coordinate rare earth development and utilization with the protection of the environment and resources, and make new contributions to the world’s economic growth and scientific and technological development.”

    I’d suggest the very clumsy manipulation by the socialist State for the control of the RE industry has run headlong into the capitalistic realities of supply & demand, incl. critical price points resulting in substitution & replacement.

    Evidenced by statements 90% of Chinese producers are losing money currently, the level of State subsidies vs estimates up to 40% production “illegal”, plus the recent dumping of 2yrs ROW demand of Dy effectively at cost, suggest China has made a total hash of Deng’s legacy ATM.

    While they may be well advanced on broad R&D they certainly don’t appear to have the basic skills to ensure an orderly business. In fact I’d suggest the WTO provided a face saving opportunity to turn to ROW for some help to sort out the mess they’ve created..

    October 17, 2015 - 2:43 AM

  • Jack Lifton

    Steve,

    Thank you for your wonderful insights and reminisces. I don’t think that Tim Ainsworth who like you is an old (in terms of service not physical age) “China hand’ is separating the mechanical from the philosophical in his comment here. I have also observed that in general the Chinese position in “me for we” or as my generation was lectured “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask instead what you can do for your country.” Turning away from this ethic to the divisive politics of hyphenated group grievance has essentially shifted the so-called best and brightest in the USA to the sterile pursuits of money and the false strength of identity group politics. The Chinese are simply still Confucian. I suspect that the most overlooked story out of China is the government’s quiet revival of support for Confucianism, the pursuit of the goal of harmony among people and the respect for an established order. We confuse capitalism with democracy; the Chinese do not.

    Jack

    October 17, 2015 - 6:33 AM

  • Jeff Thompson

    Interesting article, particularly the 25,000:5 ratio in qualified employees. Taking into account roughly a 50:1 population ratio between China and Australia, it mitigates the difference to some degree, but still you are left with a 100:1 ratio per capita. But perhaps the per capita numbers are irrelevant and miss the larger undercurrent of the fact that the raw absolute size of China’s population, and India’s as well, are going to have a dramatic influence on the rare earths industry, for good or for ill, well into the future.
    Not sure about what seems to be employer-directed university level education – I think a strong degree of academic independence is healthy. No doubt it is working in China. I respect very strongly the old-fashioned concept of spending many years, and in some cases a lifetime, working for the same employer and building a depth of experience and long-term professional relationships, but unfortunately the trend in the United States has shifted dramatically the other way, particularly in technical fields, with many good engineers tending to change jobs about every 2-3 years, which in my view makes it difficult to establish the same sort of depth or specialized expertise in a subfield that used to be more common. In that regard, the Chinese system makes sense to me, but I still think a solid independent academic experience prior to employment is important.
    Thanks for the food for thought, Steve.

    October 17, 2015 - 10:56 AM

  • allan

    will the chinese ever get control of their illegal production, i have a chinese friend who is taiwanese and said they simply pay off the local officials and it may never change?? appreciate your opinion

    October 17, 2015 - 10:57 AM

  • Chris

    Steve, thanks for your interesting article. I am puzzled however as to the effectiveness of the in house Chinese REE education system. If the Chinese REE industry was so well advanced 10 years ago, why was it necessary for China to “steal” the Magnaquench technology?
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/07/the-saga-of-magnequench/
    It appears to me the Magnaquench “acquisition” created the opportunity for China to capitalise on their rare earth reserves and held the ROW to ransom for a period of time?
    I have no doubt the Chinese are very good at copying and producing goods cheaply and to other parties’ design and specifications.
    I really would like to know just what benefit these 25,000 scientists have been to the Chinese REE industry which seems to be in a state of total disarry as we close in on the end of 2015.
    Seems to me the 5 Australians may collectively have delivered a greater pro rata potential benefit to Australia (via Lynas) than the collective 25,000 scientists are presently delivering to China?

    October 17, 2015 - 6:16 PM

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