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back to article Don't let China hold rare-earths to ransom again

We're all screwed over this China rare earths thing, aren't we? After five weeks of withholding shipments, the Chinese seem to have let some of them go again, but if they can keep their precious cargo to ransom once, they can do it again, can't they? The problem is, as those who stayed awake in chemistry class will know, that …

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Pint

Landfill mining

Surely this is the easiest way to get our hands on these elements?

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Jobs for the masses

Sounds like Cameron's just found the jobs he needs to long term unemployed to be doing, and getting paid for.

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Coat

Sure

High techs chemistry and metallurgy plants are clearly where you average C.H.A.V. will be at best used.

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FAIL

Chav no

But the hundreds, or even thousends, of ex steel and aluminium workers in places like Rotherham and Cardiff, from shop floor workers up to chemical engineers. People with skills and experience. They will be able to run high teck chemistry and metallurgy plants.

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Stop

I am Missing The Strategic Angle

China is a single economic entity - they can subsidize any sort of product for five years, wait until the competition dies and then they inflate prices for this sort of product by 1000%.

The only way to defend against this is to dump Thatcherism/Reaganism/ayn randsim, at least in the orthodox Anglosaxon form.

It becomes very clear now that a considerable dose of Mercantilism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercantilism

is needed to protect your economy from China and Russia. These two countries can corner every single raw materials market with the method described in my first sentence.

So what we need for the European Union is a new form of good old Industrial Policy. We have world-beating companies like Airbus, Ariane, Air Liquide, BP, Shell, VW exactly because the government cared. What we now need is to control diversity of raw materials procurement and we need Critial Raw Material Reserves for at least five years of consumption.

Time to ditch the M.B.A. guys and focus at Ecole Nationale D'Administration graduates. They are instilled loyalty to the state, not Naked Greed.

Now, dear Anglos, flame me to hell.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I am Missing The Strategic Angle

"So what we need for the European Union is a new form of good old Industrial Policy."

Warning lamp is now lit: when the EU gets involved in industrial policy, it quickly becomes a matter of funnelling cash to "industry champions" who are often the huge companies that have been around forever lobbying for a tighter grip on whatever market they want 100% of.

"We have world-beating companies like Airbus, Ariane, Air Liquide, BP, Shell, VW exactly because the government cared."

In BP's case, quite literally world-beating. Or, more precisely, ecosystem-beating.

Sure, the EU should encourage long-term thinking. They should also wave the big stick at big companies who probably like nasty materials processing going on somewhere they can't see if the prices are low enough at this very moment.

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Silver badge

Or, the French view...

Tax, tax, tax everything, hand all the money to the elite, then strike, strike, strike.

Thanks, but no, thanks. Communist Chauvinism (or is it Chauvinist Communism) is not a viable economic model.

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Anonymous Coward

Here's an angle for you:

The chinese basically own us. That's the US, but also Europe. They like as not don't *want* to crush "us" because it means all the paper they're sitting on becomes obviously useless as opposed to merely that much financial junk.

Besides, these guys are sneaky. Just as they're nodding assent to the US on its copyright demands only to proceed using the same copyright mechanisms against US companies, to this there may very well be an entirely different angle, and one of for our politicians staggering long term vision to boot.

Recall that they're buying up any raw stuff like crazy? They're looking at a rather big chunk of population that is going to demand wealth and prosperity just like everyone else. That's going to take some serious amounts rare earths, so they're not going to wait until demand rises enough that we start scrambling. Better to get us scrambling *now* and have the metals on the cheap later. Because of course they're going to copy our fancy new processes.

What's better than sitting on the world's only mined large pile of rare earths, the workforce to extract it with brute force, and also using it for near-term political gain? Why, if you're securing future cheap access, it's having that pile and access to fresly-reopened piles of more of the same elsewhere, and a better process to drive your own costs down too.

And the near-term political boons? By then the papers will have matured and they'll own even more of us, so they just get to dictate what they want on the shareholder meetings. They will find another way if this no longer works.

Come to think of it, any boon extracted by cutting rare earth access is nice but their real interests are with raw materials. I wouldn't be surprised if they'd planned this five or ten years ago and just decided the time was right and the occasion was there. The Chinese don't need to do American style gunboat politicking. They would be far happier to just get what they really want and for the rest of the world to not catch on too much. Much easier that way.

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Grenade

@Vladimir Plouzhnikov:Muhahahahaha

So that "communism" owns 50% of the large Aircraft market, leads the Space Launch market, leads the Liquid Gas market, has a major car industry which sells world-wide, has the World Leader in CAD/CAM, makes the best food you can find on the globe, makes missiles which have sunk more than one anglosaxon warship recently (though not fired by french forces), make their own SLBM, their own fighter plane, their own tank, have medical service for everybody.

Yeah, I'll take la Menue Communiste Francaise, with Red Wine please.

I guess you are one of these sorry inhabitants of Canary Wharf and you are offended that there is an alternative to the destructive ideology your friends cherish.

Vive La France, to Hell with Anglosaxon Bankers. That's what I say.

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not such a great idea though

yes but technology advances. Look at the same issue with mercury and lead in the 70% when CRTs were in demand. Same again in years to come, a different mineral will be needed.

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@Admiral

"Yeah, I'll take la Menue Communiste Francaise, with Red Wine please"

Yeah, you take it. I'll pass.

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Boffin

The Japanese...

... are starting to mine their old dumps for the "tech" gear to recover the metals from for just this reason and being Japan they have previously dumped lots and lots of tech gear.

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Excellent

Articles like this are the reason I still read the Reg, even if you have to sift through the dross about iPhones to get to them

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OT: Well Done, Mr Cameron

After Cameron talked to Obama, all the nasty rhetoric was quickly scaled down. Good job, Mr Cameron.

We can't allow them to destroy our champions, and the Japanese also better grow some teeth. Recently the merkins tried to destroy Toyota with completely fabricated allegations. They made an awful show in congress with the japanese CEO of Toyota. Exactly the same they attempted with Audi more than ten years ago.

The merkisn have to know the alternative: A world economy w/o Merkina. A security architecture were they don't have bases in England, Germany and Japan. Or become sane.

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Anonymous Coward

nimbys

They are not rare and there are plenty of sources everywhere including north america. We just like to use the slave camp that is China to do our dirty work so we can pretend we are Green and clean. They ruin their own country and we get what we want cheap.

Looks like we will be reducing our own land in the west into hugh slagheaps of toxic waste again then...

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Boffin

The Kroll Process?

Because Halide chemistry is clean and non polluting; also Fosters lager is made from the tears of angels and the pope is currently off celebrating Divali.

Honestly, I can't think of many things which are nastier and more toxic than various transition metal chlorides (I'm thinking SnCl4 here). I don't know about lanthanides, but I can't imagine they'd be any different.

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Not so serious

CRT's ... Yes, I remember them. And isn't Europium available in Europe - or am I taking this all too literally..?

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Landfill mining

Well, yes. But it depends what you're trying to get. If anyone's throwing out an old MRI machine I'll happily take that lutetium crystal off your hands and make a few thousand $ from it.

Similarly, chewing up old motherboards for the gold, tin, copper, lead makes good sense.

However, disassembling hard drives to get the few grammes of neodymium in the magnets probably doesn't make financial sense. Cheaper to buy new product.

As so often, the true answer is "it depends".

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Crustal abundance

Tim - I love the article, excellent.

I would have thought electronics scrap, particularly hard drives to be a worthwhile source, the magnets are pretty chunky (and great fun to play with).

The whole thing reminds me of the efforts to corner the market in Silver circa 1976, it failed spectacularly because an increasing price liberates huge "uneconomic" reserves.

Its worth looking at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elemental_abundances.svg

to see that all these rare earths aren't so rare really. I expect the chinese have kept the price low so as to buy up the easy sources at a good price. Now we will see a return to their inherent price, and this will make it economic to extract them from the tailings of other mining operations, like the red sludge you mention.

Hats off to the Chinese for having the foresight to work out the long term inherent price and to make a position, shame on us for not.

Two other points, firstly Palladium, used to cost the same as silver, wasn't much commercial demand for it, sold way under its "inherent" price, until it didn't.

Secondly, Erbium - useless greyish white soft metal, now a superstar because of Erbium doped fibre amplifiers - I predict all of the rare earths will find some special use sooner or later, though there is a risk that you might end up holding the exception, the one truly useless metal.

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Alert

Forward thinking? Nah - it'll never catch on!

Why get organised and do something in good time when you can leave it until the shit is about to hit the fan and then do it all at the last minute?

I'm convinced the world is run by students!

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Forward thinking? Nah - it'll never catch on!

They could call it "JIT Shit", however I am not convinced about the "Just" as it seems to have happened already.

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@nimbys

"They are not rare and there are plenty of sources everywhere"

That sounds plausible. It would be a very strange quirk of nature that put all the Lanthanides inside one political border...

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Boffin

@James Pickett

"That sounds plausible. It would be a very strange quirk of nature that put all the Lanthanides inside one political border..."

Well it is a very *big* political border.

OTOH the classic counter example is Israel. Middle of the Middle east but more active oil wells in Suffolk (55 barrels a day IIRC)

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Oh yes, it is

"And isn't Europium available in Europe"

Very much so. It's used as the phosphor in euro banknotes (you know, to make the notes fluoresce under the note checkers?).

You can just see the banknote designers hugging themselves with glee after they'd thought that one up, can't you?

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Boffin

Lanthanide halides don't behave like UF6

The Kroll process sounds reasonable at first sight, but most of the lanthanides really only go to oxidation state +3 (the ones that don't you can separate out much more easily by taking advantage of that), so I don't see how you get enough fluorines around them to get nice volatile compounds like the transition metal highest-valency fluorides. The lanthanide trifluorides seem to be nice solid things, melting around 1500C (without much range in the melting points, so the distillation's not going to be completely straightforward) and used in glasses for infra-red lenses and optic fibres.

The bromides are a bit more volatile, and probably the iodides even better, but I'd be very worried about thermal decomposition.

You could go to organolanthanides or borohydrides, but coating the reactor with LaB6 seems like the beginning of quite an expensive day, and I'd be impressed if Gd(tBu)3 could be distilled without decomposing.

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The Germans are really good at fractional distillation

A lot of Germany's reputation as great chemists and chemical engineers comes from a tradition of incredibly precise high-grade fractional distillations.

If I wanted a company to do something like the Kroll process to separate lanthanides by fractional distillation of halide salts, then I know I'd be talking to BASF or IG Farben or Bayer.

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Go

IG Farben

..does not really exist any more. There is still a kind of holding company, but IG Farben was dissolved by the allies because it was seen as a part of the Nazi war machine.

Afaik, IG Farben was a kind of "super-company" which included all major German chemical companies, including Hoechst and BASF.

Today, BASF is the largest chemical company of the globe, as measured by revenue. I don't have the slightest doubt that Europeans companies (like BASF, ICI or Sanofi) could produce any raw material required. The issue here is that the Chinese cornered the market. All the technology/pollution problems can be controlled. It's all a matter of planning and economics. If you spend serious money, you can safely produce rare earths in Frankfurt Höchst, just 10 kms from the Messe Tower.

This is a political issue, not a technological.

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Tom W

Yes, this has been looked at. Chlorides work, although not for all of them (one way is to explioit the way in which some trichlorides are not stable and collapse (err, I'm not a chemist, but you know what I mean, indeed, you mention it) to dichlorides.

Iodides are indeed better, some Japanese work seems to show that you could extract in one iteration. But iodine is expensive and chlorine isn't.

We're trying to explore these very points ourselves right now. You're right that this might not be the correct "smart way" to do it but doesn't change my faith in there being "a" smart way.

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Coffee/keyboard

@ Tim Worstal

"... talk to a stockbroker without gagging"

<< You, sir, owe me a new keyboard.

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Silver badge

Hooooooo boy, here we go again!

Those with longer memories will recall the same thing - "we can do it better than Johnny Foreigner can do it cheaper" - as reasoning not to resist the gradual slide to dependency on foreign oil. In fact, we were so greedy for cheap oil we ended up sending our finest engineering minds to help the Arab oil cartel build a better machine to adict our economies with. All that will happen is the Chinese will form a one-party cartel and then set the price and export levels to ensure they get the maximum profit (and keep it in the smallest number of elites' bank accounts) whilst we happilly pour our money into their hands in the vain belief that we could stop if we wanted to. Face it, we're going to put ourselves in hock to the Chinese regardless of how clever our chemists are.

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Pint

"Lanthanide halides don't behave like UF6"

The title got my attention given that I'd already wondered about the separation processes in use for those particular ingrediments, but the content lost me.

WHY can't we centrifuge them like we do UF6? Centrifuging is pretty good at separating stuff with different masses, isn't it?

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Boffin

Erm, yes and no

Well, centrifuging is the only way to separate U235 from U237, it does work, but its hugely expensive - requiring hundreds of acres of expensive centrifuges to produce grams per day., and even then it is merely enriched to 15% or 35%. Look at the price of enriched U235 (erm, not the best search terms to enter, btw) - compared to rare earths.

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Great Article. Back to raw!

Maybe this is prefiguring the new tech. New stuff, instead of the same old again and again.

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Boffin

Kroll sounds like the process used to purify Silicon for single crystal growth.

That process seems quite well understood.

The materials compatibility (with the process targeting multiple different wanted metals rather than one)

A variation on the process used to purify Nickel, using metal carbonyls (that's carbon monoxide side chains to the metal) might also work. Highly toxic when decomposed but (in principle) the raw materials (carbon and oxygen) should be readily available.

Caveat IANACE. But I doubt most of the people pursuing this are either. Still if the technology/raw material price vs concentration investment and toxicity trade offs are reasonable someone could make a lot of cash out this.

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WTF?

One more silent attack against the world by China

This country is aggressive and will surely start expansion efforts of their borders sometime in the next few decades as they rise to a new superpower status. Why oh why do our politicians let this greedy thieving country rob us blind left and right and continue to build leverage against the rest of the world.

Sure plenty all countries are competing and trying to move ahead, China makes itself unique in the systematic, government orchestrated way that the people of China steal IP property from the rest of the world. And I don't just mean copying CD's, movies and games. Corporations in China like ZTE and Huaweii are privy to Government espionage and hacking efforts. I am certain that the reason you can buy an exact duplicate of a hummer in China, is not because Hummer licensed them to, they stole the plans and designs, or simple reverse engineer. There is not a clear separation of government backed and corporate backed dollars.

Now with the RETARDED US supreme court saying OK to unlimited foreign purchasing of our elections (against 100s of years of precedent), the Chinese can simply come in and buy out the votes in the US, and then move on to the Euroland....

Learn Chinese or boycott Chinese goods, I see one or the other having to happen eventually....

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The Real Problem

No private entrepreneur outside China is going to be able to produce rare earths more cheaply than China if and when China decides to sell them without conditions again. So, because China is perfectly capable of doing that, anything but a small short-term investment is not on.

The only way we will get supply security is if either governments fund and own the production, or if they provide protectionist guarantees to domestic suppliers.

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Linux

another Sinophobia article from the west

USA use to be the large produce of these element, until they become too lazy to do so,

I assume you will make the same type of complain for the lack of supply of iPhone or iPAD

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Alert

Blanket attacks on all Chinese and all Chinese companies are stupid

@Anonymous,

No, I think the article is fine. But some of the comments here are crazy, just as I expected.

Blanket attacks on all Chinese and all Chinese companies are stupid.

For example, as far as I know, both Huawei and ZTE have passed their source codes to the Indian government earlier this year. Clearly, if their technology was based on stolen technology as described by the previous poster, they would have to be EXTREMELY brave to show their code!

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another article from the east

without the proper use of plural 's' and other telltale signs of the wu mao writers brigade. Why the penguin?

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WTF?

Another article from the east, AND?... lol

"without the proper use of plural 's' and other telltale signs of the wu mao writers brigade. Why the penguin?"

Your response makes no sense! Are you suggesting that because the writer may have originated from the east and the fact that his or her POV is the opposite to yours, this somehow suggests that their response is less relevant or should be discounted?

Next time, try and bag the unsubstantiated smugness and arrogance - contrary to your beliefs, you ain't so special! ;-)

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Dead Vulture

A thief to catch a thief shout

the truth is that there is 30% percents of these mineral products of the world comes from the US ,why not to get it ?all known that us have more improvment technology which is more friendly to earth ? but presidents decided to let china do it ,and do more harm to chinese .

so great us presidents !

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Welcome

I am confused.

US presidents? What do they have to do with it?

You mean states should decide such things as what is an appropriate industry to develop? Crazy talk!

You myst be a c........ or a s......... or something. I can't even print these words as they are so evil.

For your govern, please know that the the Markets (uppercase here obviously, the Market is the new deity as it is omniscient) always makes the best decisions. Look at how good the free-Markets economies are faring against the useless, inefficient, state-controlled, c........ (oh no that word again) and therefore fatally flawed China. The west's profit-driven banking system rules. The west's energy-intensive processes are the future. The west's medical prowess gives its population the best access to care. Etc etc

You don't want states (lowercase here obviously, governements are useless spenders and regulators and nothing more than an impediment to the Market) to get involved in what is not a core service*, do you? Quaterly results are what matters most, stockholders are also what matters most, etc etc.

* What is that btw? Xe does fantastic job for defense, Security companies should police us, education and health are obviously better dispensed when run for a profit. Imho, the govt should be a few hundreds people elected very so often and that's it. All the rest should be contracted out, and we'll get much better service with much lower taxes. Ha!

I, for one, welcome even more powerful Market-driven Overlords.

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Big Brother

I pity the human race

FFS people, all someone has to do is raise the specter of "foreign control" and you start foaming at the jaws like a pack of trained hounds.

A return to mercantilism? Seriously? A policy design by merchants and ruling elites, and designed to benefit the rich and powerful? From an era where the monopoly was considered a good thing? Where the "good of the nation" was put before the good of the people in it?

Why not return to full blown imperialist nationalism as well?

Do you want to feel a boot stomping on your face for eternity? Go ahead and hand over power to the monopolists and demagogues.

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Stop

@David 141: And The Alternative Is ?

I know all the arguments against the state meddling with the economy and the Soviet Union and the *former* Chinese System demonstrated it does not work if applied in a stupid, extremist fashion.

On the other hand, does the current Anglosaxon System (for the lack of a better term) work ?

It seems to me that the French System of free-enterprise mixed with heavy state intervention from time to time works much, much better.

To paraphrase Mr Churchill "French Economics is the Worst Economics of the Free World, except for all others".

Now you can go hair-splitting over Germany, Netherlands and the Scandinavians, but what you will find is that they pursue similar policies like the Ecole Nationale Elite.

Certainly we do not want stupid, orthodox mercantilism, but with the Chinese government cornering critical markets, we have to do something. And the other "modern mercantilism" like Ariane, Airbus, Dassault Systemes, VW, works excellently, by the way.

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WTF?

It's called 'Added Value' - done everywhere for everything

Instead of simply digging up the stuff, China opted to Add Value to their RE exports, a process that is done by many countries, as it increases the worth of the export.

If you want to complain to anyone, try the U.S. Government and GM Motors, the sleepy government that let the deal go through and the vendor of the US RE operation the Chinese bought, respectively.

The Chinese plan ahead, the U.S. government clearly doesn't.

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Alert

The Saudi's are withholding oil if you consider that ...

building their own refinery, which is what the Chinese did, is blocking sales, then you are right.

Canada did this, too!

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Nasty Evil Chinese!

You just can't trust those little buggers can you?

You stop raping their country for a couple of decades and the repay you by creating a monopoly in material commodities crucial to the Modern Western World.

WHo DO THEy ThiNK THEy ARE????slash??//????

THE ARABS?

Wii SHUD BOM THJE CH1NKJS NOW!

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All your rare earth are belong to us!

If a country sold diamond for the price of glass due to decades of mismanagement and illegal smuggling, is it a wonder they are cutting back?

Substitute diamond for rare earth, then it's funny that after exploiting this for decades most of the posters demand they continue to sell us for pennies. We are outraged that the said country dares to regulate their resources and take green steps to reduce the associated environmental destruction.

For the 'China's out to steal our jobs' crowd, now our once mighty (and ample) domestic rare earth industry's resurgent demand for miners, managers, scientists must be a wet dream that kicks China's behind?

Or do you insist them selling diamond for the price of glass? And destroy more of their environment while they are at it?

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Oh, we can

"WHY can't we centrifuge them like we do UF6? Centrifuging is pretty good at separating stuff with different masses, isn't it?"

We could certainly do that. It's just that that is a very expensive method of doing so. Huge energy requirements.

The straight Kroll Process (as we use it to make TiO2 out of ilmenite and rutile) costs $200 or so a tonne material produced (ish, ish, the ilmenite is just under $100 a tonne, the TiO2 comes out at about $450) which is much closer to the sort of costs we'd be happy to pay to separate rare earths.

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@Why oh why

"Why oh why do our politicians let this greedy thieving country rob us blind left and right? "

Because it's world war 3 on the quiet, which (ex-?)communist China quietly won a few years ago and consequently now owns much of the US and supplies much of the US's raw materials and manufactured goods, but the greedy western capitalists (primarily US/UK) and their stooges in government intend to continue enjoying their profits and exploiting their remaining local workers as much as they can for as long as they can?

Otherwise you'd have to think about the US and UK reining back the scum in the "financial services" sector (those whose globalisation services have financed WW3), and about putting less excessive folks in charge in the remaining commanding heights of the economy and letting the workers have a fairer share of the deal (German style), and that's not acceptable to those currently in power in the USA and UK.

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