Rare earth elements such as dysprosium are increasingly relied upon in the production of so-called ‘green’ components and products. Much of the supply of these rare earth elements comes from China. The image above of dysprosium comes from this Chinese trader.
There is increasing demand for such rare earth elements for all type of ‘green’ products or their components, from the magnets within wind turbines to the manufacture of low energy light bulbs. These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs. It is difficult to trace whether a traded element comes from a legal or an illegal source.
A close-knit group of mainland Chinese gangs with a capacity for murder dominates much of the mining and has ties to local officials, said Stephen G. Vickers, the former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police who is now the chief executive of International Risk, a global security company.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued a draft plan last April to halt all exports of heavy rare earths, partly on environmental grounds and partly to force other countries to buy manufactured products from China. In Washington, Congress is fretting about the United States military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives.
Licensed and illegal mines alike sell to itinerant traders. They buy the valuable material with sacks of cash, then sell it to processing centers in and around Guangzhou that separate the rare earths from each other. Companies that buy these rare earths, including a few in Japan and the West, turn them into refined metal powders.
Vestas, a Danish company that has become the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said that prototypes for its next generation used dysprosium, and that the company was studying the sustainability of the supply. Goldwind, the biggest Chinese turbine maker, has switched from conventional magnets to rare-earth magnets.
Developers hope to open mines in Canada, South Africa and Australia, but all are years from large-scale production and will produce sizable quantities of light rare earths.
“This industry wants to save the world,” said Nicholas Curtis, the executive chairman of the Lynas Corporation of Australia, in a speech to an industry gathering in Hong Kong in late November. “We can’t do it and leave a product that is glowing in the dark somewhere else, killing people.”