While Europe is rich with the rare-earth elements used to power batteries and produce magnets, leaders haven’t demonstrated the political will to tap them, according to Friedrich Wellmer, former president of Germany’s Geological Survey. Scientists at the European Geosciences Union’s annual meeting in Vienna urged policymakers to address the problem.
“It is not that the elements don’t exist in Europe,” said Wellmer, who is now the chairman of sustainable management at France’s Institute for Advanced Studies. “It has become more unacceptable socially to mine them.”
Rare earths, 17 chemically similar elements, are used in products such as Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPod music players, flat-screen televisions and hybrid cars. European industry, which imports more than 90 percent of its rare-earth-metal needs, consumes about a third of the 70,000 tons of material used annually.
“Europe relies on natural resources whether we like it or not,” said Richard Herrington, a professor of mineralogy at London’s Natural History Museum. “It just takes a political or economic crisis to put pressure on European industry. We’re seeing that now.”
The U.S. Defense Department warned that it would intervene in case of a shortage of rare-earth materials for defense electronics and motors, Brett Lambert, the Pentagon official responsible for industrial policy, said on April 9. China, the world’s biggest producer of the metals, imposed export restrictions in 2010 and the U.S., the EU and Japan have challenged the curbs at the World Trade Organization.
Tapping abandoned mines in Greece and Albania, along with newly discovered deposits in Finland, would alleviate European industries’ problem, according to Herrington, who proposes mandatory labeling to alert raw-material users about the origins of their products.
“Toyota is getting into partnerships with mining companies,” said Nick Arndt, a geologist at France’s Joseph Fourier University. “It’s not quite clear why European companies are not doing that.”
Toyota Tsusho Corp. (8015), the trading company of Asia’s largest automaker, signed an agreement in December to accelerate production of rare-earth metals for Canadian mining company Matamec Explorations Inc. (MAT) and buy all the output from its Kipawa mine. On Dec. 4, Korea Resources Corp. led a group of Korean companies in an accord with Luxembourg-based Frontier Rare Earths to develop its South African mine.
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