US President Barack Obama announced on March 13 that the United States, joined by Japan and the European Union, had filed case with the World Trade Organization over China's rare earth export quotas. On the other hand, due to long-time disorderly development of the rare earth industry, China has paid a heavy price on the environment pollution. Under this critical situation at home and abroad, the Association of China Rare Earth Industry (ACREI) was formally established on April 8, 2012. A sustained and healthy development of rare earth industry is hence highly expected.
Why is rare earth so important? On April 24, at the 14th “Face-to-face Meeting between Scientists and the Media” organized by CAST, rare earth experts were invited to communicate with the media surrounding the theme of “Rare Earth and Our Daily Life”.
Rare earth is a general reference to 17 chemical elements, which includes 15 lanthanide elements from the 57th to the 71st elements in the element periodic table, and scandium, the 21st element, yttrium, the 39th element, which are in the same 3rd subgroup.
Today, rare earth materials are widely used in people’s everyday life. They can be found in LCD TV, energy saving lamp, mobile phone, air conditioner, electric vehicle, airplane and even textile and cosmetics.
Just as Zhang Anwen, deputy secretary general of the Chinese Rare Earth Society, put it: “ Rare earth has provided human being with a key to opening the treasure of modern high-tech materials.” Rare earth is playing a key role in the new green energy technology, electronic industry and national defense. Developed countries are taking rare earth as a strategic resource and rare earth functional materials research and its related application in industry as a key area for development.
Geologically speaking, rare earth reserves are not rare. “Because rare earth is widely scattered and low in density, people think it is rare.” Zhang Anwen said. From the reserves that have been discovered and published, there is a very large proportion of rare earth in the composition of the crust, almost thirty thousand times as much as the gold element.
Geographically speaking, rare earth is also widely distributed in the world. According to the data published by United States Geological Survey (USGS) on the global reserves of rare earth in 2011, China accounts for 48.3%, CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) 16.7%, USA 11.4%, India 2.7%, Australia 1.4%, other countries and regions 19.45%.
Again according to the data published by USGS in 2008, in sharp contrast to its reserves distribution, China has met nearly 97% of the global demand in rare earth raw material products. Apart from China, only India has provided 2.2%, Brazil 0.5%, Malaysia 0.3%.
According to the experts at the meeting, starting from the late 1980s, China has provided the world with a large number of cheap rare earth, which has supported the developed countries in their manufacture of high value-added products and even high-tech defense and military products.
“Under the circumstances, they never say a word of thanks but make a claim against us instead,” expressed Zhang Anwen for the unfairness.
“Are we always only to provide cheap raw materials? China has such a large domestic market, can’t we develop our own high technology? Are we always to produce low-end products, always to export cheap raw materials?” Zhang Anwen asked.
As a matter of fact, from the 1950s to 1960s, China has recognized the importance of rare earth and has since started rare earth researches. Through decades of efforts, China has established a complete rare earth industrial and research system, which ranks in the first place in the world in terms of the level of research and the quality of production.
However, Zhang added, “the weakness of China’s overall rare earth industrial chain is components and spare parts, while developed countries have taken the advantage of this and gained enormous profit from China.”
One thing not to be neglected is that, in all seven major strategic new industries put forward in China’s 12th Five-year Development Program, rare earth industry is very much involved. Zhang believed that by catching up with the advanced manufacturing of components and parts, China will have a greater say in the future.
Source: China Science Daily