By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
As a direct follow-up of the previous article on nuclear power, this article will further focus on what can be done with the electricity provided by it. First thing to focus on would be where this electricity is to be used. If we are to target electrifying different modes of transportation that run on fossil fuels currently, this could prove beneficial as 45.2% of the total energy consumption goes to transportation. A transportation policy based on decarbonisation would necessitate vehicles powered by electricity. This is where rare-earth elements come in.
What Are Rare-earth elements?
Rare-earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table. The group consists of yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium). Whilst they are not as rare as once thought, concentrated ore deposits are few. The special physical and chemical attributes of these metals open up interesting possibilities for them to be used to serve a variety of purposes, particularly in electronics. For example, erbium is used in medical lasers for acne removal, ytterbium is used as a gamma radiation source in nuclear medicine and lanthanum is used to make specialised glass which can be a part of camera lenses.
The market for rare-earth elements is heavily dependent on geography, which advantages certain countries more than others. As much as 70.5% of the global supply of all rare-earth elements was supplied by China in 2018, followed by 11.7% from Australia. For rare-earth oxides, Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) is the second largest producer in the world behind only China (11% versus 84%). This is even more pronounced for praseodymium and neodymium (PrNd) oxides, both of which are used to make high-quality permanent magnets.
Malaysia’s Place in Rare-Earths
With future technology more and more dependent on electricity usage, the demand for rare-earth elements is projected to increase. PrNd oxides themselves are forecasted to be the main players in this with increasing demand for electric vehicles. This is why the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) is the most important piece of the puzzle to drive the Malaysian economy upwards.
Malaysia is perfectly situated for concerted investment into downstream industries utilising the rare-earth oxides produced in the LAMP. These can then be used to produce end-products that can be sold on to other industries internally or to be exported. For example, the PrNd produced by Lynas can be streamed to manufacture high-quality magnets. These are, in turn, used to produce electric generators and motors used in wind turbines and electric vehicles.
Manufacturers throughout the world are now in competition to increase the quality and production capacity of both of these, leading to a projected increased demand for these metals. On electric vehicles alone, personal cars, commercial trucks and beyond are being transitioned to be driven electrically. As stated earlier, 45.2% of Malaysia’s total energy consumption went to transportation, indicating a huge potential for electrification. This trend holds, as well, generally for the rest of the world.
With this in mind, manufacturers that have access to a ready supply of raw materials would be happy to either source them from Malaysia or set up their factories here. This, then, will drive up industry, fuel the economy with a diversified income and create highly-skilled jobs that can bring up the average wages of the Malaysian work-force as the selling point for investors to set up businesses in Malaysia changes from low-wages to a ready supply of raw materials.
What is even more inviting is that the South-East Asian region currently has no rare-earth champion and will depend on Malaysian products to grow as well. This translates to a future market that is sustainable due to the increasing prosperity within the developing nations here driving environmental consciousness together with demand for electric vehicles and wind turbines.
Moreover, the need to separate human activities and fossil fuels relies on the creation of these equipment. If we are to properly address climate change, at least electrification of fossil fuel based activities, such as driving, needs to occur. Hence, through the utilisation of Lynas, not only are economic needs satisfied, environmental preservation is strengthened as well, leading to a greener, healthier future.
ii) Rare-Earth Mining
According to the Blueprint for The Establishment of Rare-earth-Based Industries in Malaysia Blueprint (2014), Malaysia has potential to develop four sources of rare-earth elements; namely, on-shore alluvial xenotime and monazite, ion adsorption clays containing rare-earths elements (REEs), rare-earth (RE) minerals and REEs in marine sediments, and RE minerals in primary sources.
From the 4 potential sources of rare-earth elements, the first two are the most possible. Of these, Malaysia already has experience with the first as xenotime and monazite are by-products of alluvial tin mining as they are present in its tailings (amang). These are composed of a mixture of rare-earth elements alongside deposits of thorium and uranium, which make them weakly to strongly radioactive. Managing this radioactivity has proven to be a huge challenge, especially with the Asian Rare-earth Sdn Bhd controversy demonstrating the importance of waste management and public engagement. From then, we have come a long way in managing rare-earth-related industries as can be seen from the impeccable management of Lynas.
With greater expertise and experience on our side, there is presently much opportunity to capitalise on the growing rare-earth market by venturing into local mining. To obtain alluvial monazite and xenotime, it is recommended that either the Malaysian alluvial tin mining industry is revived or economically mineable alluvial deposits of xenotime and monazite are explored. Both these steps involve extensive initial exploration of suitable sites of economically viable tin, xenotime and monazite deposits by the Mineral and Geoscience Department of Malaysia (JMG).
Ion adsorption clays containing rare-earth elements have been exploited commercially only in China but prospects in Malaysia through initial soil sampling seem positive. Of course, there are still relevant concerns with regards to environmental impacts brought forth by this mining, especially from traditional mining in China. For this, it seems Chinese methods have improved to be more environmentally friendly with increases in time-efficiency and cost effectiveness. Malaysia can learn from these new techniques, couple them with local improvements, perhaps gleaned from our experience with Lynas, to innovate a proper methodology with which to mine these clays. However, the novel nature of this potential source necessitates firstly exploration research done by the JMG to find economically viable deposits of ion deposit clays and then research on understanding the whole process from initial mining to processing and product finishing commissioned by the government before mining proposals are even considered.
iii) Geopolitical Play
It is no secret by now that with the huge Chinese near-monopoly, there is a desperate need for external suppliers to break the hegemony, especially for countries in the Western hemisphere looking to break away from Chinese state-control. This can be seen in the trade war between the United States of America and China, where the whole world waits with bated breaths at if China will restrict the USA’s access to their rare-earth elements. To buyers in need of satisfying demand, a near-monopoly is an uncomfortable prospects as future prices and supply of these metals can fluctuate to their detriment. Moreover, Chinese rare-earth metal extraction involves heavy environmental degradation at the moment so the environmentally conscious populace of Western nations would be more receptive to cleaner sources outside of China.
Rare-earth elements move beyond technological prowess, economic benefit or environmental prudence. They are fast-becoming a matter of national security. The greater the dependence on wind turbines and electric vehicles, the greater the dependence of a nation’s economy on the rare-earth metal supply. This is not including other uses of these metals including catalysts, laser production and nuclear medicine. Arresting this supply can force the nation in question to agree to more agreeable terms with the supplier.
The only way to ensure this supply is maintained while reducing the associated risk of losing control to another nation is to diversify suppliers. Enter Malaysia. Establishing ourselves as the alternative choice to China’s rare-earth elements can help other countries avoid submitting to China’s hegemony. The bolstering of their national security also means they will agree to more favourable terms with Malaysia so the rare-earth venture becomes even more profitable for us. Of course, saying this is much easier than implementation as geopolitical pressure from China is expected, especially with regards to palm oil trade as China remains an important partner in that venture.
This can be circumvented by signing Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with certain targeted partners, including the USA, Australia, Vietnam, Germany and Demark. Done properly, these deals will takes us further to the centre of influence between China and the West, avoiding over-dependence on either and becoming a lynchpin for supplies. As a third-world country knocking on the doors of global superpowers, we must be able to hold our own and with rare-earth elements, we can. All it needs is no-nonsense policy-making and a commitment to develop quickly.
Featured Image from The Verge