As the global demand for technical innovation continues apace, today’s rare earths industry is unrecognisable from what it was just a couple of decades ago. It stands to be one of the most critical industries in the world for the foreseeable future.
Rare earth elements (REEs), are used in everything from medical diagnostics to the mobile phones an estimated 5.1 billion of us have in our pockets or bags, electric vehicle motors to the satellites that orbit the world, electronics manufacturing to defence. Thanks to their unique properties, it is likely no substitute will be found for these 17 essential metals.
The industry faces significant challenges, however, not least the recent intimation from China – the world’s leading source of REEs – that it could restrict access to its resources as its tit-for-tat trade dispute with the US deepens. It was a proposition that would not have been missed by the likes of Google and Apple; even the US government which last year branded REEs critical to its economy and national security.
That has since been followed by the Association of China Rare Earth Industry’s statement saying it “resolutely supports the nation’s counter measures against US import tariffs on Chinese products”.
If the supply of REEs dried up overnight, either the result of decisions made in Beijing or an altogether different global challenge, arguably one of the biggest difficulties would be the industry’s inability to congregate around one body. Until now, it has been operating in silos, with individual countries and regional representation working independently of each other.
“Lots of other industries have associations that represent and advocate on their behalf,” says Gwendolyn Bailey. “But for rare earth there’s no such advocacy – political, social, environmental, or otherwise – really happening, and nothing’s being done about it.”
Bailey, a rare earths scientist at Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven (KU Leuven), is project associate at the recently formed Rare Earth Industry Association (REIA). It was officially launched in June 2019, supported by the European Union’s EIT RawMaterials research and development agency.
Said to represent the “full spectrum” of global stakeholders, the association’s founding members include organisations and institutions from China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore and the UK.
Reconciling a global swathe of opinions
Bailey says over the last few years she and colleague Dr Nabeel Mancheri, now secretary general, worked to gather support for the association among its global partners. However, it was difficult at the beginning she explains: “I wouldn’t say it wasn’t all positive at first. A lot of people were doubtful about the premise of the global aspect… How would European interests be protected? How would Chinese interest be protected?”
Accepting those concerns were valid, she has a different view. She contends there is much to learn from bringing together regional stakeholders, providing a platform to share knowledge and best practice. “Creating this global view allows you to see what others are doing, to be able to make more synergies,” she explains.
“For instance, our Japanese stakeholders are not interested in the same things as our Chinese stakeholders are. Our research and outreach means we’ve been able to understand what, for example, the Chinese industry is looking for, the Japanese industry is looking for, and so on. That’s meant we’ve been able to identify gaps in the Japanese market, say, and how things happening in China might help address them.”
REIA was the result of GloREIA, a European project that sought to mitigate the risk of having one dominant player in the REE sector. Europe, through the European Rare Earths Competency Network, identified issues such as supply security and volatile markets is key obstacles to the growth of the sector and its international perception.
Resuscitating rare earth mining’s reputation
Arguably the biggest of all the challenges facing this flourishing sector is, however, its reputation. The internet is awash with news articles, academic studies and environmental organisations’ reports and campaign literature questioning the sustainability of REE mining. Much of it is fair and indeed turns the spotlight on some questionable mining practices.
The industry, however, is doing a lot to evolve, including finding more environmentally conscious approaches, something Bailey believes often gets overlooked. “The industry has a reputation issue, with too many generalist prejudices, particularly around pollution,” she says.
Bailey feels there is large-scale misunderstanding about the process of REE mining among the general public, often resulting in misconceptions, an area the REIA it can help address. “Cooperation among our members will help enable more objective analysis. I will qualify this statement by saying we are a new association, so our commitment is not 100% formulated yet. But I think most of our members agree that we are committed to adding transparency and sustainability to the rare earth value chain.”
Doing so, she says, would help educate the public on the work the industry does, and its commitment to developing a sector that has environmental concerns at its core. “We’ll do this by distributing global and public information, organising events such as training, seminars and conferences.”
Work to do
It is not just the public, however, for whom education is key. Understanding how the industry operates in other parts of the world, where stakeholders aren’t currently active, is an essential part of raising standards. “For our members, we’ll help establish LCA (life cycle analysis) profiles, environmental profiles and industry standards, as well as enable multi-stakeholder communication,” says Bailey.
She hopes that, in coming years, REIA will be a source of information for the public and the industry, as well as being a global protagonist for the sector. “There’s no advocacy for this industry. That is why we saw a big need to build the association. We want to advocate towards governments and NGOs. We’re on a peace mission,” she says. “In comparison to the looming trade wars, we really want to support a fair and sustainable rare earth production and supply chain.”
She adds governments could do more to support buyers and investors in the integrated supply chain. All too often, she says, the risk side of rare earth production is more thoroughly considered than the potential for making new and high tech products, which may well create downstream value to the market.
“I think the industry has work to do too. It has to build clear, competitive advantages. Rare earth materials are essential to a lot of our sustainable technologies today, but transparency and sustainability need to be a part of that, which in turn could help de-risk the market and create more value advantages.”
Bailey says the association will help promote sustainable growth and the sustainable sourcing of raw materials, as well as supporting research and development projects. Its most critical function, she concludes, will be shedding light on the role of the sector in today’s world and countering some of the “prejudice” the industry faces through scientific-based environmental assessments, on a global scale.