Rare earth metals are found in everything from T5HO and T8 lights, to iPhones and Tomahawk missiles. The supply of these materials in the global market has been all but dominated by mining operations in Southern China, where concentrations of rare elements such as yttrium and europium are high. With low export quotas and high taxes imposed by the Chinese government, products that rely on rare-earth metals, such as T5HO lamps, have faded from the market as their price-per-unit increases.
China’s dominion may soon be challenged, however, by a mining operation headed by Mineria Activa, located near the city of Concepcion in southern Chile.
Activa believes that, with the help of a secret formula, they will be able to dig out the metal-rich clay, put it through a leaching process with biodegradable chemicals in specially designed tanks, and then return it, cleaned, to the ground. Once returned, the clay would be replanted with pine and eucalyptus trees. This would be an ecologically-friendly change from China’s mining operations, where ammonium sulfate is pumped into the ground to chemically flush out the minerals.
The new process may be labor-intensive, but Arturo Albornoz, the head of the Activa Biolantanidos project, is hoping that companies such as Apple Inc. and Raytheon Co. will be willing to pay a premium for materials that were obtained without destroying the planet.
“It’s our big bet on green mining,” Albornoz said. “The chemicals may be more expensive, but we’re saving in storage and handling of waste.”
Activa and its partners have invested nearly $20 million into the project. Production is planned to begin by the end of 2016. If enough buyers are obtained, the company intends to build small processing plants where the clay can be leached and returned to the ground. Activa has acquired the mining rights to 2,000 square kilometers of land and estimates production at nearly 2,500 metric tons of concentrate a year.
Market experts are doubtful that the company will be able to charge a premium for being environmentally friendly. Prices for rare-earth metals have declined in recent years since China agreed to comply with an order from the World Trade Organization to end export quotas.
“Buyers are certainly willing to take a secure supply chain and green production, but only if pricing is, at worst, no higher than the existing Chinese prices,” said Stormcrow’s Hykawy.
So, although a new, more ecologically friendly source of materials is being created on the horizon, the future still looks dim for T5HO and T8 fluorescent lights.