BEIJING (Reuters) - If plans in Beijing come to fruition, a few miners will control all of China’s rare earths output, while a vibrant processing industry turns the country into a net importer of the valuable raw materials.
That day is a long way off. The world is currently focused on a sharp reduction in international supply after China cut export quotas for the minerals, which are used in a number of electronics, military and other high-tech applications.
Still, consolidation of Chinese rare earths miners is well underway, while research institutes are developing applications for a growing downstream industry, the secretary-general of the Chinese Society of Rare Earths told Reuters on Friday.
“At the moment there is no plan to eliminate exports altogether, but our society supports that and hopes the country will move in that direction,” Lin Donglu said.
“We should make our raw materials into high value added rare earth products, then export that... In the past, we produced raw materials and then foreign firms, including in Japan, subcontracted the processing and sold it back to China.”
“Now that we have this technology, I am sorry but there’s no need to sell the raw materials and have them sold back to us. We can do this processing, we can add the value downstream, if you want to buy it you can buy that.”
Lin’s society doesn’t set policy, but boasts a strong voice over a sector that China once valued only for its export dollars.
His ideal would be for China, which currently produces 97 percent of rare earths although it only holds about one-third of the world’s reserves, to produce in proportion to its reserves, while mines in other countries account for the rest.
If China fully developed its own processing industry, it would reverse current trade patterns whereby rare earths are exported to Japan and elsewhere, then processed into materials that are often brought back to China for final manufacture into consumer goods or equipment.
Japanese firms, and France’s Rhodia, have already established joint ventures in China’s rare earths center of Baotou, to benefit from the cheaper raw materials there.
Similar shifts as China fills in more and more of the production chain have already been felt in other industries.
Sharp cuts in China’s export quotas have sparked interest in rare earths mining elsewhere, including the revival of a Molycorp Inc mine in California that used to dominate world production, before the Chinese mines ramped up.
At the moment, though, China produces more rare earths than its processors can absorb. Fewer quotas have simply meant more smuggling.
Customs officials have found rare earths labeled as other minerals at Qingdao port in northeast China, and cracked a group that was smuggling rare earths out of Sichuan in the form of colored glass for remelting later, Lin said.
He did not comment on expected export quotas for next year.
China argues that consolidation is needed to shore up prices and address the environmental cost of rare earths mining, which requires moving hundreds of square meters of dirt for each tonne. Lack of environmental mitigation has allowed China to produce rare earths at lower cost than other countries.
China’s rare earth output this year would be in the same range as last year’s 120,000 tonnes, Lin said, as smaller mines continue production under the new consolidated ownership.
Baotou Steel Rare Earth Group, which Lin used to head, now controls almost all the rare earths production in northern China’s Inner Mongolia - accounting for over half of total Chinese output. Most of that is the relatively less valuable light rare earths, found together with iron ore.
But it has to date made little effort to restore the ruined grasslands or clean the water around its open pit mines.
“The wet ecology in the south means the damage that was being done was immediately apparent. Inner Mongolia was a desert to begin with so the damage wasn’t as clear at first,” Lin said.
“But actually, that’s been polluted too.”
In southern China, big state firms are still jostling for dominance and mopping up their smaller private rivals.
The local government in the Ganzhou area of Jiangxi has set up a firm to consolidate and exploit the more valuable heavy rare earths there, muscling out provincial miner Jiangxi Copper.
National mining and trading heavyweight Minmetals is also active in the region and Baotou plans to set up a unit there.
Jiangxi Copper will instead control the light rare earths resources in southwestern Sichuang Province, while Xiamen Tungsten is the designated player for Fujian, Lin said.
Editing by Sue Thomas