9 September 2009

China is planning to further restrict or prohibit exports of rare earth metals, according to British press reports. Rare earths—some of which are mined exclusively in China—play a crucial role in emission control catalysts and in a number of other technologically advanced products including electronics, electric motors, superconductors or magnets.

In a draft report titled ‘Rare Earths Industry Development Plan 2009-2015’, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has reportedly called for a total ban on foreign shipments of terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium. A number of other metals including cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and europium would be restricted to a combined export quota of 35,000 tonnes a year.

An estimated 95% of the world’s rare earth supplies are mined in China, mostly in Inner Mongolia. The proposal reflects the growing competition for diminishing resources, as the global usage of rare earths increases. The proposed export quota is insufficient to cover the global needs.

A number of the materials to be restricted are used in emission control catalysts. Lanthanum is a common alumina stabilizer used in both gasoline and diesel catalyst washcoats. Cerium is a key component in gasoline three-way catalysts, as well as in many types of diesel catalysts, including particulate filter catalysts. Praseodymium is another rare earth element used in many diesel particulate filter catalysts. Yttrium is a common component of high temperature alloys used in exhaust systems, such as those used for metallic catalytic converter foils.

Rare earth deposits are also found in Australia, North America, and South Africa. However, in the 1990’s China has put global competitors out of business by flooding the market. The biggest US rare earth mine at Mountain Pass in California is now being reopened by Molycorp.

Source: The Telegraph