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Monday, April 18, 2011

Praises for Praseodymium

Think back to high school chemistry -- one of my favorites -- and you may remember that in the periodic table, there are seventeen elements called "rare earths" with difficult names: Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium.

Turns out that these rare earths have become critical to modern industry. The tiny but powerful magnets in the hard drives of your computers? The display screens of your laptop and smartphone? Virtually every laser in mass-market use, including the ones that read CDs and DVDs? Without rare earths, they wouldn't exist. There are many more examples than these.

It's not merely consumer electronics, however. Military electronics are equally dependent on rare earths.

Problem is, China now comprises 97% of rare earth production. Recently there was a spat between China and Japan; the Chinese made a point by cutting off rare earth shipments to Japan. The Japanese quickly caved after noting the potential consequences on their electronics industry. The same could happen to us.

More recently, China has reduced export levels of rare earths by one-third and increased taxes on exported rare earths. That's called "Capitalism with Chinese characteristics" -- a phrase that anyone who has done business in China will know.

Rare earths are not actually rare; they simply don't occur in concentrated amounts, unlike iron or copper. Recovery is difficult. Until 25 years ago, the U.S. was the leading producer of rare earths. The Chinese offered lower wages and lower standards for environmental protection, so they took over the business.

The U.S. will have to fix this. And keep your eyes on other unfamiliar metals and their sources. Chile, for example, has become known as the Saudi Arabia of Lithium, the major component in high-tech batteries.