back to article Has anyone seen REM lately? No, we mean rare earth minerals

We're digging into rare earth minerals with The Register's next Lecture in October. Dr Teal Riley, head of the Geological Mapping Group at the British Antarctic Survey, will discuss with Register readers a joint University of Cambridge project which hopes to unlock hidden deposits of REMs. Tickets and event details are here …

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Not rare at all

Some "rare earths" are more common than bismuth, an element that is so rare we routinely chug it after a hard night's drinking and eating curry.

What is difficult about these elements is separating them from each other, since they are so similar chemically. That requires a lot of treatment, and can cause a fair amount of pollution, as shown by various horror stories from eastern Europe. If we're dependent on China, it's because we prefer that they deal with the pollution and just sell us the product, thank you very much. Kind of like how we're turning a blind eye to their CO2 emissions and their self-serving announcements of "meeting targets", as long as they keep churning out cheap stuff.

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Re: Not rare at all

Didn't Worstall used to cover this sort of thing at length?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Didn't Worstall used to cover this sort of thing at length?

He did. And the takeaway facts (for me) were:

1) They're not that rare

2) If you try and game the market, as the Chinese did a few years back (insert a link to a news piece predicting the end of the tech boom, as you couldn't get REMs anymore) then all you're going to do is drive the price up, and make it more viable to mine elsewhere. Which is exactly what happened. With the end result being cheaper REMs as more suppliers became available.

I upvoted you, but there seems to be some sort of War on Worstall going on, as any mention of his name attracts downvotes like flies. I wonder whose beer he pissed in ?

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Perhaps China was smarter than they were given credit for

Perhaps they knew that appearing to try to 'corner the market' in rare earths would provoke exactly that response. They might find the ultimate outcome more desirable as it would mean lower prices for REs that they consume more than anywhere else and production happening elsewhere would mean they could close down some of their older more polluting facilities (I don't know if they did, but I wouldn't be surprised)

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Re: Perhaps China was smarter than they were given credit for

Perhaps they knew that appearing to try to 'corner the market' in rare earths would provoke exactly that response.

Maybe, but I'd guess that they've judged it pretty well - ramp the price to the point that the round-eyed pointy nosed foreigners start looking for alternatives, look at the cost of schemes they propose, and that will show the price point the Chinese government can push the REMs to. Which will probably be slightly higher or lower than the price that caused us pointy-nosed types to start asking the question about other sources.

It's a form of price discovery without competition.

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Re: Perhaps China was smarter than they were given credit for

Such price discovery tactics are used in monopolies all the time. They are constantly playing with prices to try to reach the optimal point that maximizes profit - ideally they want to do like airlines do and find ways to segment their customers so the ones with the ability to pay more see higher prices than others. Drug companies do this, which is why drug prices are much higher in the US than anywhere else. US consumers are "willing" to pay more because of our messed up system of private insurance companies that leave end users price insensitive.

We might be seeing it in action with Apple in fact. They don't have a monopoly on smartphones, but they do have a monopoly on iPhones. This time around we've got a $999 XS and a $749 XR which is slightly spec'ed down but with a bigger screen. It will be interesting to see how sales shake out between the options. If I'd held onto my 6S plus and was buying this time around instead of getting the X last year, I couldn't see paying $250 more for OLED, slightly higher resolution and a second camera.

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long term mind set

Long term REM options would be filtering from sea water (various resins & bacteria have shown promise in extraction REM) - maybe as a nice add on to desalination plants that process huge volumes of water and so (though tiny % in sea water) the huge volumes of water could mean a decent amount obtained.

More short term, a lot of nasty, acidic mining waste is (relatively) very rich in REM & so filtering methods on that waste is a lot more financially viable., and that (relatively) toxic wate needs clearing up really (similarly for other nasty stuff such as "fly ash" from coal burning power stations)

We really do not want to look for new deposits (be it on land / beneath the sea) as we have already shafted our environment massively so more mining not exactly good for battered ecosystems.

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Re: long term mind set

Waste is always someone else's problem... until it blows back.

Earth is running out of closets to hide the mess.

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It will be some time before it's necessary to go deep sea diving for rare earths, Australia has a lot plus vanadium which is likely to go hand in hand with rare earths in battery tech. Indonesia, Argentina and Canada all have significant reserve s of REMs. It's not only refining that is a problem though, developing the mining and local processing has considerable environmental impact too. The Investor Intel site has some of the best info on REMs plus good advice on where to put your money.

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Misinformation abounds on this

Daedalus is correct, there's a little more to it.

The US has plenty of ore itself - there have been several miners working it, last I heard of was MolyCorp.

The thing is, worldwide, it seems all or nearly all RE ores also have significant thorium in them - so not only is it hard to get the RE's apart from one another, you have this waste product that most people are pretty fearful of, it's fairly radioactive.

US regulations have shut down our miners and processors by making the cost noncompetitive.

China was cheap...so no one cared much. They are not stupid. For one, they've begun (awhile back) trying to sell only value-added products - magnets instead of the elements for example, by pricing the raw stuff higher, and for two - realizing the current situation, no competition because they drove them all out of business, can be a potent bargaining chip with the rest of us. Whether deliberate or not, it is what it is. Same idea as WalMart causing all the Mom and Pop shops to go out of business, looking around, and then raising prices (or Amazon, or...the idea is the same regardless of the actor).

Those who want to use up the thorium in breeder reactors need to lend me some of that they are smoking, or maybe it's just lack of education. Breeders all melt - 100% have. U 232 which is that Th breeds into is weaponize-able, and fission products are a little different from that, but just as bad. We're not short of uranium and aren't building more plants...hmmm. I could easily debunk molten salt but it'd take a long post to describe how that chemistry utterly fails when atoms are split - which one gets the fluorine/chlorine/whatever? Does it eat the reactor walls in the meanwhile? How do you add more as the number of atoms increases with fission? What about radioactive noble or electronegative elements in the products. Their dream is pure fantasy. If we want the stuff, we're just going to have to stash the thorium till we find an actual profitable use for it.

I do nuclear work for a living. India's been trying to get the thorium cycle working for a couple decades. I say let them figure it out first on their dime and with their lives.

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Re: Misinformation abounds on this

the only problem I'm having with your statement DCFusor - the one about fluoride salt reactors being pure fantasy, is the research reactor they had, didn't it run for a year?

I'm not sure what I'm missing between the 70's project with the research reactor, at Oak Ridge National Labs and now, was there's not molten salt? not thorium? or something else inferior?

I'm honestly asking as you seem to be in the industry as you said, and have basically stated it doesn't work at all, but what interested me when I heard the hype was the bit about it already been tested at least in the lab, for close to a year. It made it seem like it wasn't total horse shit. so I'm wondering what their spin was omitting

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Anonymous Coward

Never mind rare earth metals ... is anyone addressing the supply of unobtanium yet?

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Joke

I look forward to seeing Tim Worstal there

<eom>

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Coat

Ore metallic for the people

Gotta go, I'm Out of Time ->

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REM associated with Rock...

...or with sand

Whereas Prince Buster was into skarns and Motorhead were Heavy Metal.

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Don't be mean to Dr. Riley - he's only vaguely wrong on one thing

All that's been said about REs so far seems fair enough. It is true that finding a deposit large enough to make it worth exploiting is tough.

But this is to do with the separation process.

Yes, separating the 15 from each other (S and Y are easy with chemical means) requires a girt big plant. Last one built cost a $ billion at least. There's really no great way around this, it just has to be large to cover all the steps. And such a large plant wants a homogenous feed. Thus, natural size of the processing plant is girt big, desiring constant feed, deposit must be girt big.

At which point the conceptual error. Or, OK, the possible error and agreed, this is a little bugbear of mine own. Change the processing method. There are alternatives that are possible. Might even be economic too. No one's really done all that much looking in recent decades - since the, say, 1960s really.

I can think of one method that does work - whether it's economic I don't - and which could be set up to take hetergeneous feedstock. So, we could do the extraction in small lots from all those waste piles and off-feeds from other processes and so on. Which neatly solves our problem of a lack of large scale deposits worth pushing through a traditional plant.

All I need is the odd £20 million to go do the research....oh, all right, I'll test it in a lab first for £50,000 if you insist.

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Re: Don't be mean to Dr. Riley - he's only vaguely wrong on one thing

Welcome back to the wizard whom some call Tim.

Regarding the "easy to separate" examples, I think that while Y is correct for Yttrium, S is sulphur. The S element in the rare earth row of the periodic table is Strontium (Sr), a calcium analogue, hence the dread of getting radioactive isotopes of it in the environment. It nestles into the bones and stays there.

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Re: Don't be mean to Dr. Riley - he's only vaguely wrong on one thing

My mistake there. Should be Sc.

Scandium and Yttrium are rare earths but not lanthanides is, I think at least, the distinction. Strontium isn't anywhere near being either. And not is Sulphur, mea culpa.

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The End of the World as we Know It?

I Believe that this alleged shortage could be The Final Straw, especially as these metals come from Half A World Away.

Some Good Advices would be to Hope this isn't some mad genius's Endgame.

Having said that, even if Everybody Hurts it won't be The End Of The World As We Know It.

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Anonymous Coward

Norks

North Korea has a planetfull....everyone should now this by now...

But they haven't the tech to dig it out yet...Donni will help soon.

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