Rare earth: The New Great Game
Post categories: China, Energy, Technology, Trade
Paul Mason | 14:57 UK time, Wednesday, 18 November 2009
The rare earth story goes to the heart of China's relationship with the West - not just that, but to the heart of the West's inability to understand China.
It is a complicated story, involving a whole chunk of the Periodic Table, high secrecy, patent battles and conspiracy theory.
But it boils down to this - 97% of the specialist metals that are crucial to green technology are currently mined in China.
China is already limiting exports and has plans to limit them some more. As a result much of the hi-tech metals industry is also moving to China.
As you can see in my film for Newsnight:
First the science.
There are 17 rare earth metals; they have got their own special bit of the Periodic Table.
In nature they are mainly found clumped together underground in specific types of rock and ore, so they have to be separated.
It takes a large quantity of rock to make a tiny quantity of rare earth. And the rock can often be radioactive. For now just try and remember two elements - Lanthanum and Neodymium.
In the early 1980s a US company called Ovonics perfected a rechargeable battery using rare earth metals that would form the basis of a whole branch of experimentation in electric and hybrid cars.
For geeks, the battery is a Nickel Metal Hydride battery (NiMH) and uses, primarily, Lanthanum.
But remember the name Ovonics. The firm formed a JV with General Motors, ceding 60% ownership to the car giant.
Meanwhile in 1982 General Motors discovered a new compound that could make cheap, highly effective, permanent magnets, again using a rare earth - in this case Neodymium.
Again for geeks - the nomenclature is a Neodimium-Iron-Boron magnet (NdFeB).
The primary effort at turning science into commercial technology here took place in the United States, with GM at the hub.
In parallel, these scientists were putting in place the key technologies for green capitalism:
• battery powered cars would become crucial in the effort to wean us off the petrol engine and;
• permanent magnets are a crucial component in almost any gadget that moves or sees or is guided by a computer.
And both technologies rely on rare earth metals.
Now the geology.
As far as we know there is rare earth ore in California, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, Vietnam and Australia. There's even some in Greenland.
But the mother lode is sitting under the mountains 50km (30 miles) north of the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, in the Bayan Obo mine.
In addition to Bayan Obo, China has also found massive deposits in Sichuan.
As Deng Xiao Ping presciently commented, at a time when electric cars and wind power seemed like ecotopian wet dreams: "Arabia has oil, China has rare earth".
The story of how China seized a stranglehold on the ore supply and then large parts of the metallurgy is a modern epic.
"Either by stupidity or design" says one industry insider, "the Chinese flooded the market in the mid 1990s and collapsed the price. Almost everybody else went out of business".
For the purposes of today, there are three big potential sources of rare earth outside China - in California, Canada and Australia.
The Californian mine has not produced since 1998, the Australian mine was set to start production in 2011 but has just lost its financing and the Canadian mine likewise is aiming at 2011. Together their annual production could amount to one third of China's.
Each of these projects has been hampered by lack of finance, particularly since the financial collapse of 2008. Some industry voices say the danger of China flooding the market again, making the mines uneconomic, means only a strategic rather than pure economic view makes them viable.
So with the doubling of demand and the collapse of non-Chinese supply, China ended up with 97% of the ore market.
But as the industry for processing the metal and making products out of it developed rapidly in the late 1990s and this decade, China has also managed to bring much of that on-shore as well.
In addition to producing nearly all the rare earth metals, companies operating in China consumes 60% of the stuff.
How has it achieved this? First by relentless state-backed focus.
If you do a web search for the scientific papers on rare earth, a lot of Chinese results come back. China's metallurgy industry flourished while the West's declined.
But increasingly China has started to pare back exports. It places an export tax on rare earth and a quota. In each of the last two years the quota has been shrunk by 20%.
There is of course, this being China, a flourishing black market. In addition to the 35,000 tonnes officially exported, another 20,000 tonnes were somehow consumed outside China.
There is also endemic illegal mining of the stuff in the Chinese deserts. This export limit is an overt signal to producers of rare earth products that, to ensure supply, they need to move production into the People's Republic of China.
Now, in addition to the export restrictions so far, another problem is looming. China's demand is predicted to equal the entire Chinese supply by 2012.
In a recently released - but not published in the West - draft report, Rare Earths Industry Development Plan 2009-2015, the Chinese government pondered a complete ban on five heavy rare earth elements and a cap on exports at the current level (35,000 tonnes).
Officials later downplayed this, reminding journalists that since "no-one wants to give up profits" the quotas are rarely enforced. However, if they were enforced - ie if smuggling was stopped - it would be a big problem.
Unless the non-Chinese mines ramp up production, there will be a shortage outside China. So Western companies who want to manufacture have, increasingly, got to move onto the Chinese mainland.
As Dr Ian Higgins of the Birkenhead rare earth firm Less Common Metals told Newsnight:
"What you're going to get is no opportunity for manufacturing outside of China. And it just depends how far you think it's acceptable to take this policy. Somewhere along the line do we say 'yes, the world does need some strategic control in terms of manufacturing these materials'?"
Now to the reasons why this is such a problem for the rest of us.
The wind farm and the hybrid car - the two key technologies in the transition to green energy use - are completely reliant on rare earths.
There is about a tonne of rare earth magnets in a wind turbine and about 2kg of Neodymium in the rechargeable battery of a Toyota Prius, plus another kilogram or so of Lanthanum and Praeseodimium in the drive train up the front.
(For those whose focus is more on blowing people to smithereens, it is also disconcerting that guided munitions such as the US's JDam bomb cannot function without rare earth magnets.)
Now to the response of the two big manufacturing powers outside China - the US and Japan. How have they coped with this complex problem of rising new technology creating a resource monopoly for China?
In summary, very differently.
Japan's car manufacturers jumped into the electronic vehicle game early. As a result a joint venture between Toyota and Panasonic is the world's leading manufacturer of rechargeable NiMH batteries.
Likewise on the magnet front, again largely due to the foresight of Toyota and its ilk, Japan makes the majority of the the Neo magnets that are not made in China.
Japanese companies hold an unspecified stockpile of the key materials. In addition Toyota has become the first car maker to own a mine - it has set up a rare earth mine in Vietnam which will solely produce for its car plants.
In addition, according to The Times newspaper, about 20% of all Japanese rare earth imports are black market. One Japanese offical told The Times:
"If the Chinese export quota limits were the reality of what comes into Japan each year, we would be even more worried than we already are."
Now what you can say about Japan's attitude to rare earth is that it is canny. The state and major companies are aligned, they're combining geo-politics with realpolitik up to - if The Times is correct - the point of tolerating a black market.
They have, in the process, gained the best part of a decade's head start on the West in cleantech cars. And, though they are reliant on China for rare earth, they have effectively pulled China into an Asia-centric rare earth economy.
Contrast this with the US. It was not just the free market that closed the Mountain Pass mine in California, but environmental concerns about radiation.
But for whatever reason the US allowed its own rare earth source - the second largest in the world - to go out of business.
Next, the rare earth magnet business. In 1996, GM sold its magnet business, Magnequench, to a Chinese-led consortium. It then moved large parts of its Neo magnet production operations to China.
Magnequench has now been taken over by a joint Chinese-Canadian business, but the bulk of its operations remain in China.
There is a large literature of political claim and counterclaim over this.
Next the rare earth battery business.
In the late 1990s GM famously scrapped its work on the EV1 plug in car and crushed all known models out in the desert.
It sold Ovonics, together with the patents for the key battery technologies, to Chevron/Texaco - an oil company - which successfully sued Toyota to maintain intellectual property rights over of the technology.
The resulting company was named Cobasys. During its period of ownership by Chevron it failed to produce NiMH batteries in large numbers. A highly polemical account of this can be found in the Sony Pictures film Who Killed The Electric Car?
In 2004, a protracted legal dispute between Cobasys and Toyota/Panasonic was resolved by the Japanese firms agreeing to pay Cobasys about $30m and also royalties on the batteries sold in America out to 2013.
As a result of the legal settlement the battery situation in the US is beginning to free up, but the legal battle leaves those promoting hybrids - and their next-generation development, the plug-in hybrid - rueing their dependence on non-US manufactured NiMH batteries.
Sherry Boschert, author of a book on electric cars, wrote in 2007: "It's possible that Cobasys (Chevron) is squelching all access to large NiMH batteries through its control of patent licenses in order to remove a competitor to gasoline.
"Or it's possible that Cobasys simply wants the market for itself and is waiting for a major automaker to start producing plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles."
Cobasys has now been sold to a JV between Samsung and Bosch, which specialises in the rival Li-Ion battery (which is not so rare earth dependent).
What matters, in the long-run, is that the US lost any kind of lead in electric car battery manufacturing and left the Japanese complex of Toyota, Panasonic and Sanyo as the NiMH battery superpower.
It has also taken a major bet on Li-Ion technology which some commentators doubt is wise.
Meanwhile, when Panasonic and Sanyo merged, China's competition regulator this year ordered these two Japanese companies to divest part of their rare earth battery business.
There are no prizes for guessing which country's cash rich state-backed companies will be queuing to take this division off their hands.
Stepping back to see the bigger picture: in little more than two decades China has achieved absolute dominance in the raw materials side of rare earth and forced much of the manufacturing industry to move to China.
Its coming export restrictions will force more of this, but will probably also stimulate non-Chinese raw material production as the price rises.
In the process China has acquired key tech transfers, as is its stated aim under the so-called 863 Program.
And, as a byproduct of US corporate decision making, the China-Japan axis has emerged as the centre of the rare earth economy.
The US is now so worried about all this that in the National Defense Act 2010 there is for the first time a whole section requiring the government to launch an urgent probe into the impact of rare earth dependence on national security.
But for years US governments - both in the Clinton and Bush eras - have stated they have no problem with the transfer of rare earth jobs, plants and science to China.
The whole story reveals a mismatch between Western and Asian ways of doing business, and of perceptions.
President Barack Obama has now, reportedly, accepted there will be a global resource crunch within a decade, led by peak oil.
But the Chinese and Japanese governments and industrial elites have been operating on a resource agenda for the past decade. China is demonstrably using foreign policy to gain direct access to supplies of raw materials.
When the Afghan war began, and the Russian involvement in the "Stans", it became common to talk about Central Asia being the "New Great Game" for the warring superpowers.
But the real new Great Game is being played in the swamps of the Niger Delta, on the borders of Colombia-Venezuela, in the metal mines of the DRC and now in the rare earth mines of the world.
For example, China attempted to buy 51% of the Australian rare earth mine, but pulled out in September when the Australian government vetoed this.
For decades US foreign policy, and much of the Western world behind it, has focused on security of supply of oil from the Middle East.
Chinese policy - foreign, industrial and commercial - now centres on finding and securing supplies not just of oil but of all major natural resources needed by an economy developing at 9% for the rest of the century.
The old, oil-based policy shaped the world; the rise of freemarket capitalism after 1989 became possible because no rival powers existed that could fragment the world economy and challenge US dominance; the new, multi-resource based policy of China (together with Japan and South Korea) is what is reshaping the world.
It has put roads through Kenya, and sent Chinese engineers into the swamps of West Africa and the airless space of the Andean metal mines.
As Asia powers out of the recession it is enchancing the prestige of a model based on resource monopolies, giant integrated manufacturing empires, overt black-marketeering and state directed industrial policy.
The FT's Martin Wolf reminds us we are stacking up a potentially huge conflict between the US and China over trade and currency - and these two issues are what dominate the thinking of free-market, Western-trained economists when they think of China.
But it seems to me that the West has been largely blindsided by the growing importance of resource strategy.
While the West was thinking about one thing, the big Asian industrial powers were thinking about another.