Everybody knows by now that China is flush with rare earth elements (REE’s), or at least to the uppermost extent that any country can be. And, everybody knows the market hijinks that China has planned with REE’s, namely, buy all the REE’s you want from them, as long it is in a value-added manufactured good.
What most folks are probably not aware of is that the ore bodies that carry the REE’s (Sc, Y, and the Lanthanides) are usually enriched in thorium and/or uranium. So much so that no little amount of skill and equipment is needed to separate Th & U from the REE’s. The US and USSR developed much of this separations technology post WWII and for decades thereafter. Much of this art is in the US patent literature. The rest of it is buried in dusty, obscure volumes on library shelves.
The art of REE separation is arcane and somewhat isolated from the rest of inorganic chemistry owing to its specialized nature. Most of the separations art relies on leaching and elaborate solvent exchange schemes. Ion exchange technology is also highly represented in this domain. Few chemistry students are exposed to this science and most of the cold war era practitioners are retired, ailing, or deceased.
Chemistry students rarely see this art for another reason. It is generally practiced by engineers and metallurgists who seem to be in a perpetual phase separation from the standard chemistry curriculum. I would argue that this distinction is mainly cultural.
Back to the Chinese. While Americans have been busy yammering about drill-baby-drill, or following the escapades of reality show imbeciles or a thousand other idiotic distractions, we have failed to focus pressure on our government to consider technologies like thorium power or molten salt reactor technology.
While a gullible and frankly, cognitively impaired, vocal minority in the US accept that we have a right to $<3.00/gal gasoline, we are being distracted into the warm feather bed of self-congratulation and delusion about our supposed exceptionalism. I sense that our culture is beginning to show a type of exceptionalism that is not very admirable.
While American voters are being spun up into a frenzy again about commodity oil prices, China has been promulgating its national industrial policies. American industrial policy seems to be about lining the citizens up for accelerating consumption. China’s industrial policy emphasis seems to be about putting infrastructure and capacity in place for exports as well as anticipated internal consumption.
China has a substantial presence in mineral rich Africa. China imports copper ore from Peru and Chile. Not finished copper- but copper ore. China keeps the value added steps for its own coffers. Most distressingly, China is busily working on copper mining in Afganistan while our kids fight and die there in an intractable cultural shooting war. Did you get that?
China is mining in Afganistan and Americans are paying to die there.
While the US pays to make the world safe for commerce, China is spreading out over the world looking for scarce resources like copper under the umbrella of stability. While China mines copper in Afganistan, the USA consumes copper in Afganistan in the form of brass bullet casings ejected over the landscape. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.
Is this a diatribe against all things Chinese? Absolutely not. If anything, China has skillfully mastered it’s range of control and made purposeful, long term plans to reach its goals. Like its plans for Thorium-based molten salt reactors. Thorium power is undergoing a bit more examination now, as described in this Forbes article.
Here is a point I’d like to get across. The present boom in REE exploration and mining is in a good place for thorium extraction. If thorium were to be part of the extracted value rather than a costly sidestream in need of segregation and remediation, then the subsequently improved economics of REE extraction and greater availability might translate to lower REE costs for users of rare earth metal technology.
There is a crucial synergy here that the US would do well to exploit. But it requires vision, long term planning, and regulatory flexibility in the handling, accumulation, and processing of thorium. These attributes the US now lacks. The current lead pipe doctrines of American politics represents a critical systems failure of our culture. We cannot continue to regard middle-ground compromise as total forfeiture.