China’s green dream for rare earths masks reality

By Chris Buckley, Reuters

BAOTOU, China –China’s quest for a green future built on rare earths metals seems a world away from Ren Limin as he casts lumps of one of the metals in a chemical-spattered shed thick with acrid fumes. Ren tends cauldrons of sputtering acid, additives and ore in a shed in north China’s Inner Mongolia region, smelting lanthanum, one of the 17 rare earths that Beijing hopes will power the nation up the clean technology ladder. Yet Ren and a workmate use few safety protections as they stir and poke the red-hot cauldrons. Holes in the roof and windows act as main ventilation. “This place doesn’t have anything but it’s got mines. We live off the rare earth mines,” Ren, who gave his age as 32 but looked years older, told Reuters journalists who visited Baotou, a city of 1.8 million people about 650 kilometers (404 miles) west of Beijing that calls itself the “capital of rare earths.” “It’s not that dangerous. You get used to the smells, but there’s also the heat,” he said. China says it must curb rare earth ore sales abroad for the sake of its environment, though its own rare earths industry is marked by pollution and primitive production that tightening export quotas alone appears unlikely to staunch. China supplies 97 percent of the world’s rare earths, used in computers and clean energy technology such as wind turbines and electric cars. The battery of a Toyota Prius hybrid car uses 10 to 15 kg (22-33 lb) of lanthanum. Beijing has sparked international concerns by curbing exports of rare earths which it says it needs for its own green growth. Ren was unaware of the diplomatic fuss and met questions about environmental and health problems linked to production with gruff bemusement. “We sell it on. That’s all I know. I’m not sure who buys it or what it’s for,” he said of a pile of lanthanum bricks lying on the floor, among discarded cotton gloves and scrap. He worked without a mask but wrapped a towel around his face and donned a visor when pouring the molten compound into molds.