EDITOR: | April 1st, 2013

The Pulse: What it was like before “China’s rare earth hegemony”

| April 01, 2013 | No Comments
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Pulse_Proof-04-300x229Don’t blame China for all of it. It’s our fault. That is, the present and continuing dominance by China of rare earths — particularly heavy rare earths — must in part be sheeted home to the West. We had them, we knew all about them — all about them that is, except how to maintain control (or at least assure ourselves of plentiful supplies) of these now vital elements.

Let me add a further dimension to the discussion kicked off this Easter here on ProEdgeWire by Dr Luc Duchesne on China’s rare earths hegemony, a thought-provoking post on how the West got itself in this REE mess.. As he rightly states, “How could a single country manage to control 95% of the global trade of rare earths, a group of strategic elements that is so significant that it makes the policy advisers of the other 195 countries look like dunces?” (The whole post is directly below this one on the Home page.)

That’s it in a nutshell, Dr Luc.

But it was not so much China’s winning the REE war: the West — and the United States, in particular — surrendered without a fight. Of course, China was able to put the West out of business by providing supplies of rare earths so cheaply no one could compete. They did the same with tungsten, tin and other critical metals. Fortunately, they can never repeat that strategy as China is running short of them for its own industrial uses.

But the United States once had such a head start. Even by 1951, Time magazine was condensing the name Molybdenum Corp. into MolyCorp.

As the news magazine pointed to its readers back then, the elements with “tongue-twisting names” (the writer cited praseodymium, gadolinium, cerium, lanthanum and ytterbium) were in that year being seen as having a new importance as the jet and atomic age was opening up. It noted that cerium, combined with magnesium and aluminium, produced tough, light, heat-resistant alloys ideal for jet engine parts.

The magazine’s story was provoked by the announcement from Molybdenum Corp President Marx Hirsch of the Mountain Pass discovery, said to contain 14 of the 15 rare earth elements. Time concluded: “If the deposit lives up to Hirsch’s hope, the U.S. will no longer have to rely on imports of the earth’s once forgotten elements.” As Woody Allan once said, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your future plans.

In 1957, Oregon’s state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries published a report “Thorium, the Rare Earths, and their Uses”. In this, it was noted that rare earths were “one of the richest areas for exploration in the field of metals today”. It summed up very neatly the technical challenges of dealing with 15 elements (they considered yttrium separately) so remarkably alike in their chemical behaviour: “This characteristic has made chemical separation so difficult that only in recent years have metallurgists and engineers had relatively pure metals to use in testing and alloying”.

Most interestingly, the report listed the companies involved in the processing of thorium and rare earths ore, or compounds. They were:

Lindsay Chemical Company, West Chicago, Illinois
Marine Minerals, Inc. {Crane Company}, Aiken, South Carolina
Maywood Chemical Company, Maywood, New Jersey
Metal Hydrides, Beverly, Massachusetts
Michigan Chemical Corporation, Saint Louis, Michigan, and Golden, Colorado
Norton Company, Worcester, Massachusetts
Rare Earths, Inc. {Davison Chemical Company}, Pompton Plains, New Jersey
St. Eloi Corporation, Newtown Ohio
The Gows Chemical Company, Inc., Box 443, Laramie, Wyoming
United States Yttrium Company, Laramie, Wyoming
Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Lamp Division, Bloomfield, New Jersey

Then in 1960 we see advertisements in technical journals from Allied Chemical of New York promoting a new brand name, Baker & Adamson. The advertisements boasted the  label was a new source of rare earth, thorium and yttrium compounds. “The unique properties of these chemicals are currently being utilised in a wide range of products,” the advertisements read. “To name a few: carbons for arc lighting, lighter flints, TV tube manufacture, camera lenses, ceramic stains, alloys, paint dryers, microwave equipment”.

Speaking of TV tubes, The Wall Street Journal reported in May 1965 that, before colour television came into being, rare earth producers had a surplus on their hands. By the time the article was written, it was a different story: supplies of REE by then were so tight that producers had to ration them. The newspaper reported that both Molybdenum Corp and American Potash & Chemical (which had taken over Lindsay Chemical and its rare earth business) were planning to spend more than $1 million each on new rare earth processing plants, and that Nuclear Corp. of America was planning a 10-fold rare earths expansion.

And yet it all went wrong – and the West was back to square one.


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