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China’s Dystopian Lake–Courtesy Of The World’s Lust For Rare Earths

December 24, 2020

By Paul Homewood


 Further to my post on neodymium, it is worth taking a closer look at just why China dominates most of the world’s production, their share being estimated at 90%.

Although neodymium is classified as a “rare earth”, there is actually plenty of it about. The real problem is that extracting and refining it, and other rare earths, is a highly hazardous and toxic process.

Quite simply, few countries, other than China, are prepared to take the environmental hit.

Back in 2015, the BBC published this account of Baotou, where rare earths are mined:


Black sludge pours into the lake - one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia is a toxic, nightmarish lake created by our thirst for smartphones, consumer gadgets and green tech, discovers Tim Maughan.

From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.

Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.

Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?


It’s well worth reading the whole piece. But this paragraph sums it up:

The intriguing thing about both neodymium and cerium is that while they’re called rare earth minerals, they’re actually fairly common. Neodymium is no rarer than copper or nickel and quite evenly distributed throughout the world’s crust. While China produces 90% of the global market’s neodymium, only 30% of the world’s deposits are located there. Arguably, what makes it, and cerium, scarce enough to be profitable are the hugely hazardous and toxic process needed to extract them from ore and to refine them into usable products. For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a byproduct. It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.

  1. December 24, 2020 10:51 am

    We can be sure that if neodymium was needed in bulk by any ‘fossil’ fuel industry, its extraction would be under constant attack from the so-called environmentalists.

    • cajwbroomhill permalink
      December 24, 2020 1:34 pm

      Yes, but for once, justified wrath from the Greens!

      • Chris Davie permalink
        December 24, 2020 3:10 pm

        So by the same logic, if the wrath about this one mining operation is justified the same wrath would apply to all mining operations. So I guess we can kiss goodbye to civilization!

      • cajwbroomhill permalink
        December 24, 2020 6:27 pm

        Though the Greens’ wrath may be justified as to conditions in the Chinese mine described here, surely there are many other mining operations which can be better managed into tolerability?
        Otherwise, the world’s workings would lose too much while the Chinese practices continued.

      • Duker permalink
        December 24, 2020 9:40 pm

        Yes. The manufacture of super-phoshate fertiliser also requires the use of sulphuric acid. No need to pipe the by products to the nearest hollow and leave them there

      • December 24, 2020 9:58 pm

        That’s obviously why the Chinese do it then!!!!

    • Devoncamel permalink
      December 24, 2020 9:37 pm

      A good piece MGN, in that it shows the rush for greener power sources is anything but green.
      The obsession with the climate change narrative is masking what we are letting ourselves in for.

  2. Chris davie permalink
    December 24, 2020 12:42 pm

    So, that’s a tailings dam, the same as found on any other mine in the world that needs to grind its ore in order to extract a valuable metal. Basically, the ore is ground as a slurry, a tiny portion of it containing the mineral of interest is removed by either chemical or physical methods and the resulting waste product (tailings), which is typically chemically inert, has to be disposed of, most commonly in an artificial pond known as a tailings dam. There are thousands of such dams all over the world; modern dam designs include provision for reclamation and restoration after mine closure. Some dams, typically those which date from before the twentieth century, may have some issues with mineral constituents that are slowly but quite naturally oxidizing.

    In the case of rare earths, there are complex processes used downstream of the basic grinding and concentration process that results in the tailings dam but the quantities involved are now in that tiny proportion that has been removed before the large tonnage is disposed of in the tailings dam, so do not affect the material in the dam, which is essentially the same as that in the vast majority of tailings dams worldwide.

    Those final extraction processes are very high cost and perhaps the reason why China chooses to be the principal producer is that it is not dependent on production economics but will pay the price to control the market.

    The US used to have one producing rare earth mine (the Mountain Pass mine) – you would pass it driving from LA to Las Vegas, but it closed on economic grounds some years ago. I understand there is now an effort to reopen it as a strategic asset.

    • Dan permalink
      December 24, 2020 1:55 pm

      You can also look at the various slag tips from steel and ironmaking in steelworks across the centuries and the world. Only in recent times are technologies being developed, such as large scale rotary hearth furnaces where remediation is not simply burying it.

    • Sheri permalink
      December 26, 2020 3:22 pm

      Yes, it’s a tailings pond. Now, we have to know the regulations about said tailings pond and the enforcement thereof before we declare it “just a tailings pond”. The regulations and the enforcement are what matter. One can call something “just a toilet”, but if it flushes into the neighbor’s yard, it’s not “just a toilet”.

  3. Broadlands permalink
    December 24, 2020 1:27 pm

    Remember that these materials are also used in the solar panels that are supposed to save us from the dangers of fossil fuels. They are already leaking toxic chemicals into the local environment and this is likely to get worse. There is no “free lunch” with technologies. There is always a waste product.

    • cajwbroomhill permalink
      December 24, 2020 6:17 pm

      ALL “renewable ” technologies are dud, bar atomic power and, realistically should be quietly closed down, as far as legally possible.
      Green principles, snake oil salespeople and fraudsters are real too, so all these are our enemies to be resisted.
      Will the politicians, including John Selwyn Deben and so many more, act accordingly?

    • Dave Gardner permalink
      December 24, 2020 6:34 pm

      I don’t think solar panels use rare earth materials to a significant extent, I believe the main noxious waste product is silicon tetrachloride. In China you can just dump silicon tetrachloride where you like, whereas in the West it has to be carefully disposed of, substantially increasing the cost of Western manufactured solar panels. This Washington Post article from 2008 gives some details:

      But even though the Green Blob uses Chinese solar panels as their main piece of evidence that the costs of Green technology are supposedly plummeting, I believe we don’t have access to them in the UK because the EU slaps big tarriffs on them to protect German solar panel manufacturers. Jacob Rees-Mogg was going on about this in 2019 as a reason for environmentalists to look forward to leaving the EU, as it would enable them to buy the cheaper Chinese solar panels:

  4. bobn permalink
    December 24, 2020 1:33 pm

    The Australian company Lynas produces rare earths. It mines the ore in Aus but then ships it to Malaysia for the processing because Aus environment laws make it uneconomic to process in Aus. However malaysia has started to impose constraints now. If the West wants all these electric motors it better start accepting the mess needed to make them.

  5. Gerry, England permalink
    December 24, 2020 3:59 pm

    The UK and the EU have agreed a deal to put forward for ratification by the Council, Parliament, the European Parliament and all 27 members states with whatever their constitutions require – ie all 8 Belgian provinces must approve it and there may even be referenda – so don’t hold your breath.

    BUT the bad news is that within the draft under energy is this:-
    Enforceable commitments towards Paris Agreement and non-regression on climate change
    and carbon pricing, with possibility of linking EU and UK carbon pricing regimes.

    So should the UK realise what a load of bull ‘climate change’ we are tied into carrying on with it. It depends on what mechanism there is in the agreement for where a party wants to take a different path. The Swiss found problems with their agreement with the EU when a referendum voted to stop freedom of movement but it could not be acted upon without collapsing the whole agreement.

    • dave permalink
      December 25, 2020 12:11 pm

      Experience shows that the more ‘thrashed out’ and complicated a contract (or treaty) is, the sooner it becomes an obsolete ‘dead-letter.’ Apparently, the present effort is 2,000 pages long! The arrangement only lasts for four years, anyway, because there are ‘break’ clauses.

      If our bossy rulers ever give up on their general madness, nothing in the Brexit deal need stop them instituting a program of repair.

  6. Nancy & John Hultquist permalink
    December 24, 2020 6:12 pm

    * * * Merry Christmas! * * *
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
    I’ve likely mentioned this before, but the term “rare earths” comes from the historical aspects of their discovery and identification. Such was an important time for chemical science. The Ytterby mine, north of Stockholm was a “first site” place and thus recognized in the naming of Yttrium (Y) and Ytterbium (Yb).

    The toxic lake seems to be here:
    40.6369, 109.6909

    The report uses phrases such as ” complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys “, and “stretching into the distance “.
    While large { about 2×2 miles }, the phrases suggested something like standing on the White Cliffs and gazing off toward France.

    I’ve can only look at photos and Google Earth, so do not mean to downplay the reports.
    I suspect the entire area is toxic, such as was a place I have been to.
    I did visit (1976, I think) the mining district in northern Idaho (down a shaft 8,600 feet) and toured the Zinc smelter. A photo from then, and now, can be seen here:
    Silver Valley

  7. December 24, 2020 8:02 pm

    The biggest reason most REE processing is in China is the separation process. It takes about 120 individual solvent extraction steps to tease out all 17 rare earth elements.

    What China has is a large number of trained chemists and chemical engineers, who don’t get paid high salaries. So they can monitor and control all the SX steps much more cheaply than any western company can.

    The environmental side is also a big plus for the Chinese costwise, although the poor people living downstream may not think so.

  8. December 24, 2020 8:20 pm

    O/T but a very Happy Christmas to Paul and to all the like-minded commenters here.

  9. Lorde Late permalink
    December 24, 2020 8:45 pm



  10. Mad Mike permalink
    December 26, 2020 11:31 am

    O/T but worth reading. Seems people are waking up to the hidden costs of all this cheap electricity.

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