Rare earths in Greenland

How do the ignorant end up writing these articles?

Inside every wind turbine, inside computers, phones and other high-tech equipment from medical scanners to electric cars, are materials known as \”rare earths\”. This small group of 17 elements are in extraordinary demand – but their supply is limited, and most of the existing sources have already been snapped up by China in its quest for ever more rapid economic growth.

Last month China – which controls more than 90% of the reserves of these essential elements

China hasn\’t \”snapped up\” rare sources. And it most certainly doesn\’t have 90% of reserves. Even China\’s own numbers say 30% of reserves. 90% of current production, yes, but 30% of reserves.

Not that reserves is the important number of course. A mining reserve is stuff that we know is there, how much is there, how we\’re going to get it out and that it\’s worth getting out using current technologies and at current prices.

The important number is resources. The total amount of stuff that is out there. Given that one or two of the rare earths are, alone and by themselves, more abundant than copper then there\’s really no shortage of the dman things. After all, we\’ve been mining millions of tonnes of copper a year for many decades now. We use only 130,000 tonnes of REs a year.

Two things about mining for them in Greenland though. So, such mining might be polluting. Hmm, OK, so, where do you want your pollution? In a frozen wasteland that no one or thing inhabits? The interior of Greenland is, after all, one of the most lifeless places on the planet. If pollution there\’s going to be that\’s probably where you\’d like to have it.

The other thing is that this is all bound up with the European Union:

That is why Europe has been engaging in a strenuous bout of diplomacy with the home rule government of Greenland to allow access to the island\’s natural resources. According to geological estimates, below Greenland\’s vast ice sheet could lie enough rare earths to satisfy at least a quarter of global demand in the future.

The vice-president of the European commission, Antonio Tajani, has led the push, forging an agreement with Greenland to look at joint development of some of the deposits. The agreement will extend beyond rare earths

Tajani is, like all bureaucrats and planners, swiftly heading off in entirely the wrong direction. We need more metals? We must have a new mine! Needs lots more metals? We need lots or a large new mine (s)!

Gross stupidity of course.

Whether or not there\’s 130,000 tonnes a year available I\’m not sure. But I could easily point to 50,000 tonnes a year of REs in the wastes from already extant mining and processing operations. What is needed is not new mines but new methods of processing those extant resources.

Oh, BTW, the two main RE ores? Monazite and Xenotime? It\’s pretty much impossible to process either of them within the European Union.

That\’s how seriously the EU is taking the RE shortage.

7 thoughts on “Rare earths in Greenland”

  1. Monazite and Xenotime? It’s pretty much impossible to process either of them within the European Union.

    If you wouldn’t mind expounding to us non-experts, why? Silly regulations or something more fundamental?

    Tim adds: Both really. Thorium content.

    Thorium is lightly radioactive (I shipped a 13 lb piece to a customer once. As he pointed out, he could have that piece by his computer at work for an entire year and it wouldn’t even fog a dosimeter if he bothered to wear one).

    When you process either of these minerals you inevitably end up with hte thorium that was in the original material. The sensible thing to do is store it and wait until people start building thorium reactors (I know a company that actually does this). But given the squinnying about “radioactivity” the regs about processing are such that it’s pretty much impossible to get a new license to do it in the EU.

    Odd really: it’s not soluble in water so won’t leak into ground water etc. You can stick stuff which is 500 pm Th into standard landfill (ie, 0.05% is just fine) and you don’t even get charged a premium.

    The one RE processing factory in Europe has/is/will close (can’t remember which) when its Th storage tanks are full.

  2. There is another silliness in the Graun: they are speculating about mining, under the Greenland ice sheet, and the problems of waste water pollution. Well, its pretty cold up there, year round. Just getting enough ice melted to live off is a task for those who have to stay there. I can’t see them being able to get enough for vast polluting lakes, which would instantly freeze.

  3. Tim, you’re off message. Extracting resources from the Arctic will cause irreparable damage to a fragile environment already under severe pressure from SUV’s and will wipe out all those cuddly poley bears. Better book in to your nearest McKibbins Centre for reprogramming.

  4. Rob, they aren’t rare. They are in fact very common. They’re rare because they don’t often occur in nice easy to mine deposits. They’re spread around all over the place. They usually come out of the waste of mines for other materials.

  5. most of the existing sources have already been snapped up by China

    How does a nation-state “snap up” a source of minerals, short of invasion? I’m pretty sure China hasn’t invaded Western Australia, I would have read something about it in the Perth edition of Xinhua.

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