Innovation as Resource and China's New Magnetism  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Jamais Cascio has a post on the kerfuffle about Chinese rare earth export restrictions and how the best solution is innovation - Innovation as Resource and China's New Magnetism.

You've probably seen "neodymium" (actually neodymium-iron-boron) magnets advertised in techie-oriented magazines and gadget blogs. They're actually the strongest type of magnet available, and a pair of them can easily smash fingers. They're also incredibly useful, with small neodymium magnets found in everything from hard drives to wind turbines. Neodymium is one of 17 "rare-earth metals," and these elements have turned out to be critical to the rapidly-growing green technology industries. Rare-earth metals are used in hybrid and electric cars and low-energy lightbulbs, along with windmills (and numerous other greentech applications).

And China is the source for over 95% of the rare-earth metals now in use--something that increasingly looks like a problem. How we respond to this problem can tell us something about how we can respond to other imminent resource and sustainability crises.

Conventional wisdom says that we live in a globalized economy and if China can offer the metals at cheaper prices than other sources (namely, now-closed mines in South Africa, Greenland, and Canada), it's good for us all, right? The fact that many high-tech military technologies rely on Chinese rare-earth metals may give some people pause, but so far, so good. But that model assumes that China is willing to sell as much mineral as it can produce, to whomever wants to buy--and that assumption may no longer be true.

The U.K.'s Independent reports that China has been gradually cutting the amount of rare-earth elements it exports, now down 40% from seven years ago. China now exports only 25% of the rare-earth elements it mines. [...]

So what are our options? We (as in, the non-China parts of the industrialized world) could try to pressure China to sell more, but that's unlikely to work--and China tends not to respond well to even mild criticism. We could try to rapidly reopen the now-closed rare-earth element mines, but mining is, frankly, an environmental nightmare and incredibly dangerous--hardly a sustainable practice.

Our best option is to innovate our way out of the problem.

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