Tuesday, 15 January 2013


China’s dominance of the rare earth industry is set to be broken and with it the capacity to manipulate the supply and pricing of this essential resource.

The source of China’s rare earth industry’s disquiet?  Lynas in Malaysia.

Lynas when fully operational, is geared to capture at least 20 per cent of global market share.

“Rare Earths” are a group of 17 elements that are currently used in a wide array of modern technologies, ranging from hard disk drives to lamp phosphors and hybrid car batteries. Presently, 90% of these minerals are mined in China.

But Lynas is not the only company aiming at breaking China’s stranglehold on this commodity which is utilised in nearly every modern appliance from mobile phones, computer screens to colour televisions.

Companies in the U.S. are also racing to the finish line. It’s a matter of who makes it first to the finish line, gets a leg up in commanding prices and secures contracts from companies seeking to buy rare earth, with competition hotting up to give China a run for its money.

In 2012, an old rare earth mine in California reopened and the next major rare earth mine is on track for going into full production in 2013 at Mount Weld, Western Australia (owned and operated by Lynas Corporation).

Because rare earth is a very precious commodity without which, modern appliances may come to a standstill, availability of rare earth has become a critical issue.

China's regulation on rare earths became a major political issue in July 2010 after the country slashed domestic output and export quotas by 40%. Recent data from Bloomberg shows that exports of rare-earth oxides from China have fallen 56 percent during the first five months of 2012.

According to Bloomberg, China, the world’s biggest rare earths supplier, cut the first-batch export quota for next year by 27% as overseas demand for the elements waned.

China’s Ministry of Commerce sets rare earth export limits twice a year. It pegged the first allotment for 2013 at 15,501 tonnes, down from 21,226 tonnes for 2012’s first setting.

Most affected by this limit in export is Japan. On Oct 1, 2010, Japan announced that it will move up developing new materials that can replace rare earth minerals in order to get rid of its dependence on Chinese exports. At the same time, Japan also sought to increase its supply by mining the precious minerals in more foreign countries, outside of China.

In H1 of 2012, Japan imported 3,007 tonnes of rare earth minerals from China, which accounted for 49.3% of its total volume, marking the first drop to below 50%.

In 2011, Japan ’s imports of the metals fell to 15,400 tonnes, down 34% compared with the figure of the previous year. Before 2009, over 90% of Japan's rare earth supply came from China . According to Nikkei , Japan currently owns 16,500 tonnes of rare earth metal resources in Australia , Kazakhstan , India and Vietnam . These resources will be available to Japan in 2013.

What does it mean for Malaysia? Its timely entry into the Rare Earth Industry means that the country, which aims to be developed by 2020, stands to benefit immensely from better paid high skilled jobs and an equal footing for local businesses to make their first step into the global manufacturing arena.

The World Bank warned Malaysia back in 2009 that it is too dependent on revenues from oil and gas and should instead broaden its revenue base.

Professor Badrulhisham Abdul Aziz, a Malaysian academic at University Malaysia Pahang, said: “With the Lynas refinery, Malaysia has the potential to brand itself as a rare earth hub, once other downstream industries place their plants here.”

The demand for rare earths is likely to grow dramatically in coming years and Malaysia can play an important role in leading the way in showcasing how a modern processing facility can be effectively managed to minimize risks.

The rare earth industry within Malaysia has been the focus of intense political scrutiny, social activism and media interest during the past two years, in light of the Malaysian Government's approval of the construction and operation of a US$1 billion rare earths processing and refinery plant at Kuantan in Pahang State. This facility is owned by Australian corporation Lynas and commonly referred to as the “Lynas Advanced Materials Plant” (LAMP).

Malaysians should decide if they want to vault into the new economic era where it has a lead now in rare earth or remain frightened into economic submission via unsubstantiated claims of rare earth radiation, which has been disproved by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency.

More recently, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that radiation doses of less than 0.1 Sv or 100 mSv, have only a negligible effect on health.

Lynas has declared that radiation levels from its plants are at 0.002 mSv , way below smoking which generates radiation of 150mSv.

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