So, this could have been written by me

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?

11 thoughts on “So, this could have been written by me”

  1. Surely, although a separation plant in Teesside would be dependent on overseas supplies, it could in principle obtain those supplies from anywhere overseas, thus eliminating dependence on one particular overseas supplier.
    No idea whether it would be profitable or not, but since the messy processing is the usual reason for leaving the stuff in the ground it might bring forth more supply if the mess is dealt with away from the mine.

  2. I’ve written to Ed to explain the slight gap in his logic there. What is needed is not a new separation plant but a new separation method.

  3. …and somewhere to dump the radioactive thorium waste…
    Not in the EU or UK then, as the redtape will strangle any such activity.

    There’s a reason it’s done in 3rd world places…

  4. Don’t you also need truckloads of earth to get a spoonful of the metal, so there’s a cost saving in processing near where you dig it?

  5. You transport the ore for processing at home when you’ve already got the plants at home, not when you need to build new plants. When you need to build new plants you build them next to the ore then transport the smaller mass of refined product.

    yadda yadda school Sheffield, etc. When England ran out of iron ore we imported it from overseas to process here because we already had the processing facilities here. As processing technology moved on places like Korea built new processing facilities next to the iron ore mines and we imported the steel instead of the rocks.

  6. It’s the same basic reason that “renewables” are useless in the real world. It’s not the amount, it’s the concentration.

    There is an awful lot of raw solar power striking the earths surface each day and a stupendous amount of energy in the masses of air in constant movement. This is the typical first powerpoint slide I’m sure many “experts” present to avaricious cretins (sorry, “astute investors” and it depresses me to think how many of these might be pension fund managers).

    Diffuse and/or intermittent is easy to concentrate and regulate in powerpoint land, the pages of the grauniad, government committees etc, but alas real world physics and engineering say otherwise.

    Ask yourself why hydropower works

  7. @Tim the coder.

    As pointed out by John77, Thorium is not waste. It is fuel. Or will be once the chinese got their plants operational.
    Don’t expect anything from the West, because every attempt at getting anything done is being blocked by the Greenies..
    You’d almost want the chinese to succeed brilliantly and quickly. It will be such a nice wake-up call for the deluded Idjits who think they’re still on top of the pyramid..

  8. @John77,Grikath,
    Yes I know, I have mentioned it occasionally…:)
    But there’s shed loads of it dumped currently, so no urgent need to start mining for Thorium.
    Several thousand tons just buried on the California border, where they used to mine rare-earths before the eco-loons shut them down (I wonder if they were paid by China to do so…)

    And while the Molten Salt Thorium Reactor has a lots in its favour, it’s nowhere near production, and the red tape on that will be even greater than mining rare-earths.

    mmm, new idea for rare-earth seperation…calutrons! What could go wrong with that?

  9. Splendid idea Tim the Coder. I understand the waste has a bit of uranium as well. And thus of course U235. Calutrons should have no trouble separating it out.

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