In this episode of The Negotiation, we talk with Dr. Julie Klinger, Professor of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware where she’s also a part of the Faculty of Minerals, Materials, and Society. This episode is all about the industry of rare earth metals or rare earth elements, an industry that China dominates and every piece of technology rely on, from magnets to rockets. We talk about how the industry has evolved over the last 30 years, the fact that they aren’t actually rare at all, and why, if every country has them in some abundance, we don’t all mine our own. We also uncover a fascinating narrative in that the world of rare earth elements and metals is catalyzing a change to the decades-old governing rationale behind global supply chains, where the cheapest labor and least amount of environmental regulation always wins. This is a really interesting and unique episode about an industry that impacts our lives daily that nobody knows about, that China currently dominates a producer, and why they would actually like to give that #1 spot up. Enjoy!
Today on The Negotiation, Todd speaks with Dr. Julie Klinger, an expert on the rare earth elements industry whose research focuses on finding solutions for current and potential sustainability issues.
Rare earth metals are, in fact, not actually rare. They are as common as copper or lead in terms of their occurrence on the Earth’s crust. The term refers to a family of elements located in the lanthanide series, which makes up the top bar of the “island” found south of the periodic table.
Each rare earth element is distinct and unique, but what they have in common are magnetic and conductive properties. It is these properties that make certain technologies possible, particularly any type of technology that requires energy generation. These include fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewable energy. Drastic innovations and increased demand for such technologies naturally contributed to increased demand for rare earth metals in the last 30 years.
Since the 1980s, China has been the primary source of rare earth elements worldwide, with over 100,000 people employed in the industry. However, just about every country in the world has sufficient rare earth deposits that could, in theory, be mined. The primary reason they stay untouched is that it is expensive to mine them safely: The geological conditions under which they coalesce happen to be exactly the same as those of radioactive materials. This means that, quite often, rare earth mining creates a radioactive waste management situation.
China has a huge influence on global rare earth research and development, as well as applications. Julie divides China’s role in the rare earth metals world into roughly three phases. The first phase took place during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, where tremendous amounts of research were put into potential rare earth applications. The second phase was post-1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, when other countries were encouraged to relocate their industries to China, effectively making the country “the industrial platform of the world”. The third phase started in 2003 when China’s central government started to impose quotas on the export of rare earth oxides. This is because the country had begun to turn its focus to value-added processing and environmental cleanliness.
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