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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A rare find

Western countries risk running out of supplies of certain highly sought-after rare metals that are vital to a host of green technologies, amid growing evidence that China, which has a monopoly on global production, is set to choke off exports of valuable compounds.

Failure to secure alternative long-term sources of rare earth elements (REEs) would affect the manufacturing and development of low-carbon technology, which relies on the unique properties of the 17 metals to mass-produce eco-friendly innovations such as wind turbines and low-energy lightbulbs.

China, whose mines account for 97 per cent of global supplies, is trying to ensure that all raw REE materials are processed within its borders. During the past seven years it has reduced by 40 per cent the amount of rare earths available for export.

Industry sources say that China could halt shipments of at least two metals as early as next year, and that by 2012 it is likely to be producing only enough REE ore to satisfy its own booming domestic demand, creating a potential crisis as Western countries rush to find alternative supplies, and companies open new mines in locations from South Africa to Greenland to satisfy international demand.

Jack Lifton, an independent consultant and a world expert on REEs, said: "A real crunch is coming. In America, Britain and elsewhere we have not yet woken up to the fact that there is an urgent need to secure the supply of rare earths from sources outside China. China has gone from exporting 75 per cent of the raw ore it produces to shipping just 25 per cent, and it does not consider itself to be under any obligation to ensure supplies of rare earths to anyone but itself. There has been an effort in the West to set up new mines but these are five to 10 years away from significant production."

After decades in which they were considered little more than geological oddities, rare earths have recently become a boom industry after the invention of a succession of devices, including iPhones and X-ray machines, which rely on their specific properties.

Global demand has tripled from 40,000 tonnes to 120,000 tonnes over the past 10 years, during which time China has steadily cut annual exports from 48,500 tonnes to 31,310 tonnes.

Beijing announced last month that it was setting exports at 35,000 tonnes for each of the next six years, barely enough to satisfy demand in Japan. From this year, Toyota alone will produce annually one million of its hybrid Prius cars, each of which contains 16kg of rare earths. By 2014, global demand for rare earths is predicted to reach 200,000 tonnes a year as the green revolution takes hold.

Nearly all of China's supply of rare earths comes from a single mine near the city of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The remainder comes from small and sometimes illegal mines in the south of the country, leading to devastating pollution from the poisonous and sometimes radioactive ores.

Once extracted and refined, the rare earth metals can be put to a dizzying range of hi-tech uses. Neodymium, one of the most common rare earths, is a key part of neodymium-iron-boron magnets used in hyper-efficient motors and generators. Around two tonnes of neodymium are needed for each wind turbine. Lanthanum, another REE, is a major ingredient for hybrid car batteries (each Prius uses up to 15kg), while terbium is vital for low-energy light bulbs and cerium is used in catalytic converters.

With insatiable consumer demand for high tech gadgets, clean energy mandates from countries around the globe and out-of-control military spending, it seems likely that demand will only increase as supplies are threatened. This is the recipe for much higher prices in rare earth metals and the companies that mine them.

In the first day of trading during 2010, shares of rare earth explorers are already beginning to shoot dramatically higher. While commercial scale production is still a few years away, the following companies are top prospects for becoming the next major producers of rare earth metals and helping Western nations secure a new strategic source outside of China.

Lynas (ASX code LYC) owns the richest deposit of Rare Earths in the world at Mt. Weld, 35km south of Laverton in Western Australia. A feasibility study has been completed on the Rare Earths deposit and all Australian approvals required for project development have been received. Lynas completed a AUD$450 equity offering in October of 2009 and is attracting the interest of institutional investors such as Morgan Stanley.

Another Australian rare earth miner is Arafura Resources (ASX code ARU) who own a tenement in the Northern territory.

I've taken a small position in both companies.