More rare earth players expected

Updated: 2012-08-10 09:01

By Wang Zhuoqiong in Baotou, Inner Mongolia (China Daily)

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China's preeminent position in rare earths exports is likely to change after a couple of mining operations in the United States and Australia begin to produce the materials next year.

Liu Yinan, vice-chairman of the China Chamber of Commerce of Metals, Minerals & Chemicals Importers & Exporters, said the new production could lead to greater fluctuations in the materials' global price.

China is now the source of 90 percent of the rare earths used in the world.

The materials - 17 metals needed to make various high-tech products - have fallen into short supply in recent times and become more expensive as a result. Seeing that, the United States, Australia and South Africa, all places rich in rare earths, have begun to undertake projects to produce the materials, Liu said on Thursday at the Rare Earth Industry Forum in Baotou, a city in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

Mike Vaisey, vice-president of research and technology at Lynas Corporation Ltd, an Australia-based rare earth mining company, said it is undertaking rare earth mining projects in Australia and Malaysia. Together, they are expected to begin yielding 22,000 metric tons of rare earths a year in late 2013.

Sun Dekuan, chief representative of Molycorp Inc Beijing office, said the company has the ability to produce 40,000 tons of rare earths a year in the first half of 2013, although the amount it actually produces will depend on the demand for the materials.

Molycorp, the US mining company, used to be among the companies that produced the most rare earths in the world but ceased mining the materials when the cost of doing so increased and their price fell.

Ma Rongzhang, secretary-general of the Association of the China Rare Earth Industry, said the two companies will be able to produce enough rare earths to meet the demand outside of China.

Liu Yinan estimated that the widespread use of advanced technology will stoke the demand for rare earths in coming years. Rare earths will also be consumed in greater amounts in China, he said.

About 120,000 tons of rare earths are now used in the world a year. That amount is expected to increase to 160,000 tons by 2016, according to research conducted by Dudley Kingsnorth, executive director of the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia Pty Ltd.

From 2011 to 2016, China is expected to go from using 70,000 tons of rare earths a year to 105,000 tons. In the rest of the world, the amount is expected to go from 35,000 tons a year to 55,000 tons during that period.

Jon Hykawy, clean technologies and materials analyst with Byron Capital Markets Ltd in Canada, said at the forum that "the new suppliers will make a significant shift in the global market by providing alternative sources and cause some Chinese small plants to be fazed out".

"The change will inevitably affect the global price of rare earths," Liu said.

The amount of rare earths exported this year is expected to decrease to about 10,000 tons, far less than the 31,000 tons that can be shipped out under government quotas, Ma said. Last year, 16,900 tons of the materials were exported.

Liu said the country should export more light rare earths, which are mostly found in Inner Mongolia, and export less heavy rare earths, which are concentrated in Ganzhou, a city in Jiangxi province, and Longyan, a city in Fujian province.

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