Kazakhstan's state nuclear company Kazatomprom and Japan's Sumitomo Corporation opened a factory to produce rare earth oxides on November 2. The Kazakh-Japanese venture is one of several challenges from various parts of the globe to China's dominance of the international rare earths market.
Summit Atom Rare Earth Company (Sareco) has built a $30m factory in Stepnogorsk, near the Kazakhstani capital Astana. Kaztomprom holds a 51% stake in the joint venture, and Sumitomo 49%. In the initial pilot stage, the plant will produce 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides a year, with plans to increase output to 3,000 tonnes by 2015. By 2017, capacity will be further boosted to 5,000 or 6,000 tonnes a year, though this will still be only a tiny fraction of global production, which was estimated by the US Geological Survey at 133,600 tonnes in 2010.
Kazatomprom said in a statement that the Stepnogorsk plant would mainly produce heavy rare earth elements such as dysprosium that are used in the manufacturing of industrial magnets and electric cars, and are "the most scarce and in demand" type of rare earths. The recent price fall has had a greater impact on light rare earths, while heavy rare earths, like those being produced at the Sareco plant, are still high.
In future, in addition to oxides the plant could start producing magnets based on rare earth metals, which would represent a move from raw materials production to processing "in line with the principles of Kazakhstan's state programme of forced industrial-innovative development," Kazatomprom president, Vladimir Scholnik, said at the plant's opening ceremony.
Most of the oxides produced at the Stepnogorsk plant will be exported to Japan, the world's largest importer of rare earths, which has been seeking alternative sources of rare earths since China announced in 2010 that it would cut export quotas. This resulted in a sharp increase in global prices for rare earths, which are used in a range of hi-tech manufacturing processes including smartphones, hybrid cars, hydrogen storage cells and the defence industry.
The Sareco plant's initial production of 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides will make up around 7.5% of Japan's annual demand for the materials, including 3.0% of its dysprosium demand. Japan may start imports from the plant in January 2013, Japanese newspaper Yomiuri reported.
However, Japan is just one of several countries hoping to get a slice of Kazakhstan's rare earths resources. On November 15, India agreed to export 4,100 tonnes of rare earths to Japan a year, but New Delhi is also understood to be interested in joining Sumitomo's joint venture in Kazakhstan and Japanese ventures in other countries, according to reports in the Indian press. This issue was due to be discussed during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's planned visit to Tokyo in mid-November, which has been postponed.
Other Central Asian countries have also attracted investments. Stans Energy acquired a rare earths processing plant and rail terminal in Kyrgyzstan in 2011, while Green Technology Solutions entered the Mongolian market in 2011. The company signed an agreement with Mongolian mining company Ar Erkhes on the excavation of rare earth ores and their shipment to South Korea, which like Japan relies heavily on imports of the metals.
However, the real game changers for the global market are taking place in the US and Malaysia. Molycorp's Mountain Pass mine in California was the world's largest supplier of rare earths from the 1960s to the 1980s, but closed in 2002. Molycorp announced in December 2010 that it was re-opening the mine, and started production in August 2012. Meanwhile, Australian rare earths mining company Lynas Corporation announced a significant upgrade of its ore reserves at Mount Weld, western Australia, in September and expects to open a rare earths processing plant in Malaysia in December, despite opposition from environmental campaigners.
Other factors have also contributed to the recent drop in prices. The Chinese cut in exports sparked a complaint to the WTO from US, EU and Japan, and in August, China announced it would increase its annual export quotas by 2.7%, the first increase since 2005. Domestic demand is also weaker in China, which has damped prices since as well as being the largest producer of rare earths, China is also the largest consumer.