Rare earth minerals, often called “conflict minerals,” have been a hot discussion the past several years as technologies from car batteries to smartphones have surged. Their extraction from dubious sources have led to regulations included in the Dodd-Frank Act; Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Intel have also promised to audit such materials that end up in their products’ supply chains.
The growing demand for minerals such as neodymium, dysprosium, cerium and lanthanum has led to speculation that tight supplies could lead to rising prices. One analyst even suggested a future where countries trade dependency on volatile oil Middle East for reliance on rear earth minerals from where most are found: China. Last year, in fact, over 90 percent of these precious elements were sourced from China, but other sources around the globe are slowly emerging.
Now various reports suggest that prices for these materials will start trending downward.
Global demand for rare earth minerals will increase over seven percent a year, and their market value will triple from its current value to US$9.2 billion by 2015. Prices should peak in 2013, but by then improved processes and increased research and development in rare earth mineral refining technologies will have a role in pushing those prices down.
Molycorp is one reason why rare earths’ prices should stabilize and even decrease. The Colorado-based company owns California’s Mountain Pass Mine, which once supplied most of the world’s rare earth minerals when they were used in color televisions. The mine was shuttered in 2002 because of cheaper minerals from China and growing environmental concerns. But the Mountain Pass facility is due to reopen soon, and companies in Japan including Sumitomo and Mitsubishi have already signed agreements to purchase these minerals from Molycorp. Another company, Simbol Materials, extracts rare earths from California’s Salton Sea and promises a more sustainable process to produce lithium in addition to other minerals.
Another factor in decreasing rare earth mineral costs will be the increased and improved recycling of electronics. These conflict minerals are technically not rare. They are, however, widely dispersed in minuscule amounts, and therefore a massive volume of ore is required to extract just a few ounces of that valuable neodymium that keeps wind turbines swirling and the latest Prius models humming. One start-up, BioMine, envisions electronic waste smelters throughout North America that will gather unwanted computers and electronic gadgets and salvage rare earths in addition to expensive metals like gold and copper. E-waste actually has a much higher concentration of rare earths than virgin ore; more efficient recycling will help keep prices down while lessening their environmental impact. Recycling regulations like those in Japan that puts the responsibility for recycling on everyone, from consumers to retailers to manufacturers, will also help the collection of electronic waste, the treasure of the 21st century.
As battery, electromagnets and other technologies improve, watch for increased efficiency from batteries, wind turbines and yes, even smartphones. Dystopian fear that we are unsustainably sourcing materials for “sustainable” technologies will be replaced by optimism from more innovative products that will benefit all of us in the long run.
Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.