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world growth

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

China may become a net importer of rare earth metals



China may become a net importer of some rare earth elements by 2015, based on the growth in clean technology, one rare earths developer said Wednesday.

China currently produces 97% of rare earth metals, which are used in clean technology projects such as hybrid and electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.

"We are watching their production curve," said Jim Sims, director of public affairs at U.S.-based Molycorp.

Sims spoke at a session about rare metals and the electric car at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada's conference in Toronto.

Their production might not be as much as believed, he said, adding that in the first half of 2011, China's export quota will continue its seven-year downward trend. Sims quoted the results of a survey conducted by Metals-Pages.com, which said 59% of respondents believe the Asian country will turn into a net importer. Further, Sims said that senior Chinese officials have reportedly said "pointedly" that they are not ruling that out.

Sims noted that China has huge growth in the wind turbine sector and even with the growth of car sales in China, production and use of electric bikes are growing swiftly, too.

Hybrid and electric vehicles come to mind when discussing clean technology and rare metals, and Sims noted that about 12 kilograms of various rare metals are used in these vehicles.

Projecting demand for these vehicles and other clean-technology devices is difficult in part because of how quickly some will depend on supply of the various metals used, said Gareth Hatch, founding principal of Technology Metals Research.

Hatch said in December, the U.S. Department of Energy released a 166-page research paper called "Critical Materials Strategy" which in part estimated the impact of market share and material intensity – how much used for a particular technology - for several rare earth metals. The DOE looked at the potential impact of high and low market penetration.

The DOE reviewed several technology types from advanced batteries, thin-film semiconductors – which are mostly used in solar panels – and phosphors, which are used in LCD and plasma displays and newer light bulbs.

Hatch said the DOE looked at what the supply of 14 various metals would be by 2015 and by 2020. The most critical metal, in terms of high use in clean energy and supply, in the next five years is dysprosium. Others include europium, indium, neodymium, terbium and yttrium. In the short term, lithium is not considered critical based on the projected use and supply, but in the next 5-10 years, it moves into the "near-critical" stage.

Prices for rare earth metals have risen as attention to these elements grows and Hatch said as reality sets in, prices might sort themselves out. "I'm not an economist … but as sources of supply readily available come on stream, we could see a reduction in the price of some. I don't believe they'll fall back to their historical lows because of demand. There are a handful of metals whose price I don't see changing," he said, suggesting that dysprosium and terbium might be two of those.

http://www.commodityonline.com/news/China-may-become-importer-of-rare-earth-metals-Molycorp-37090-3-1.html

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