It’s certainly familiar:
The first thing you need to know about rare earth metals, the 17 crucial elements that could shape our economic future, is that they’re actually not that rare. There is more cerium in the planet’s crust than there is copper or lead. Neodymium is more abundant than tin. There are rare earths in Wales, Scotland and the Pennines.
What makes these elements rare is not so much their scarcity but the fact that they are fiendishly difficult to process. Even when you find more concentrated grades, extracting them from their ores and turning them into something useful takes an extraordinary effort.
Well, except for the bit about extracting them from their ores – that’s trivially simple. Separating them one from the other now, yes, that’s tough. Where Ed Conway goes wrong though is:
Given what really matters with rare earths is not so much finding them in the ground as processing them, there is nothing to stop this country from becoming a leading producer. One Australian mining firm, Peak Resources, is hoping to extract rare earths from a mine in Tanzania before shipping them to a site in Teesside for processing.
No. Building a separation plant up on Teeside – using current technology that is – won’t work. Because it still doesn’t deal with that problem of being reliant on overseas supplies, does it? Nor with requiring long runs of homogeneous material. What we want is a new method of separating the rare earths, one from the other. So we can use short runs of material, wastes from other mining processes, domestic supplies if we wish – even, this would help massively with recycling efforts.
As it happens Teeside would be the best place in the world to do this too. All of which is an interesting test of the Mazzucato thesis. Government does the stuff that private industry won’t or can’t so all hail government. Except it doesn’t, does it?