April 14, 2020
_ Yuri Kofner, Head, Eurasian Sector, Centre for Comprehensive International and European Studies, Higher School of Economics. Moscow, December 21, 2018.
The strategic importance of rare earths
One of the most important types of strategic raw materials that ensure the development of modern high-tech is rare earth elements (REE). Today, rare earth elements are needed for such high-tech civilian and defense industries, such as aerospace, the nuclear industry, and radio electronics.
Rare earth elements (REE) are a group of seventeen metallic elements: fifteen lanthanides with the atomic numbers from 57 (lanthanum, La) to 71 (lutetium, Lu), together with yttrium (Y, atomic number 39) and scandium (Sc, atomic number 21). They all share similar chemical properties. Elements with a lower atomic weight from lanthanum to samarium (Sm) with atomic numbers from 57 to 62 are called light rare-earth elements (LREE); while europium (Eu) in lutetium with atomic numbers from 63 to 71 are heavy rare earth elements (HREE).
The modern smartphone cannot work without a number of rare earth metals, such as yttrium, lanthanum, terbium, neodymium, gadolinium, and praseodymium.
In fact, REEs are abundantly present in the earth’s crust. However, they are extremely difficult and costly to extract from rocks and minerals (sometimes referred to as called “chemical connectivity”). Yet, the numerous practical applications of rare earth elements often depend on the physical properties (electrical, magnetic, spectroscopic and thermal), which are characteristic of specific rare earth elements only. Thus, the main production task and the difficulty is their separation.
One of the main health and environmental problems is the fact that rare earths are often mined together with radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. In addition, extracting and concentrating REEs requires large amounts of electricity of toxic chemicals.
The global market
The world market for rare earth elements is characterized, on the one hand, by rapid growth in demand from high-tech industries, and the monopolization of rare earth supply, on the other hand. For this reason, we are seeing an intensive increase in prices for rare earths. For example, the world price of cerium oxide in July 2011 was 38 times higher than its average price in 2009 . And it is likely that this trend will only increase.
The fact is that over 90% of the world’s rare earth elements are produced in the Peoples’ Republic of China, and in 2013, Chinese companies controlled 42% of their global reserves . Now it has risen to over 50% . Against the background of the US’ protectionist policies, there is the possibility of China taking retaliatory measures by further reducing export quotas for rare earth metals. This, in turn, will drive up the commodity price for them on the global market.
Dependence on China
Despite the economic and military-political partnership of Russia and the other EAEU member states, being dependant on the supply of critical rare earth elements from China is an impermissible threat to the military, economic and technological security of the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union.
In 2012, Russia’s REE production amounted to about 2 thousand tons (2% of world production) . Producing only raw materials, Moscow subsequently had to rely on processing the mined product outside of the Russian Federation. Without the implementation of new projects, the country’s share in the global volume of REE production has already fallen below 1.5%. According to the Rostec State Corporation, by 2020 Russian demand for rare earth elements will reach 5-7 thousand tons per year, according to a more optimistic scenario – almost 13 thousand tons . Yet domestic demand is almost completely satisfied by imports from China.
China has the largest reserves of rare earth elements in the world – 55 million tons, or 50% of all explored world reserves. Russia is in second place with 19 million tons (17% of the world’s reserves). The United States accounts for 13 million tons or 12% of the world’s reserves .
The European experience
In 2013, the European Union launched the EURARE project  in order to make the European rare earth industry more independent (from China) by searching for ways to supply both raw materials and rare earth alloys from within the EU and other regions of the world .
Achievement of this goal is so important to the EU’s policymakers that in June 2018 as part of the “Horizon 2020” innovation program, the European Commission launched the tender “Securing European Critical Rare Earth Metals” (SecREEts) with a total value of over 17 million euros. By 2023 the project aims to secure no less than 3000 tons of rare earth elements annually for the needs of the European industry with an estimated generated worth of 75 million euros .
It is also worth noting that as part of the “Lisbon Strategy” the European Commission in the late 1990s – early 2000s created “European Research Area”, which became the basis for the “European technological platforms” (ETPs). ETPs are platforms created on a mutual basis by combining the intellectual and financial resources of the EU and of the largest European industrial producers, where a strategy for the development of science and technology is being developed, which then forms the basis of specific research programs and projects. Their final goal is the successful sale, through industrial and research cooperation, of value-added products on the European and world market .
Eurasian industrial cooperation in the field of rare earths
Against this background, there is an urgent need to solve the problem of recreating the entire technological chain of rare earth industries in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – from the extraction and enrichment of raw materials to chemical-metallurgical processing, production of rare earth metals, individual rare earths, and finished products. All of this has to be done in a competitive environment and without a substantial domestic market.
Due to the importance of rare earth elements for the needs of high-tech industries and the military-industrial complex of the EAEU member states, the formation of a complete technological cycle of the industry of rare earth metals is a strategic area of economic cooperation of the countries belonging to the Eurasian Economic Union.
In 2016, following the EU’s example, the Eurasian Economic Commission decided to introduce 14 so-called Eurasian technological platforms (EATPs) aimed at industrial and research cooperation, the creation of competence centers in the member states, shaping the economy of the future, constant technological innovation, and enhancing the global competitiveness of the Eurasian Union’s industrial potential.
We propose the creation of the Eurasian technological sub-platform “Rare Earth Elements” (EATP “REE”) as part of the EATP “Technologies for the extraction and processing of solid minerals”. It is noteworthy that one of its declared activities is “mining and deep processing of rare earth ores” .
The objectives of the Eurasian technological sub-platform “Rare Earth Elements” could be:
- the creation in the EAEU of a competitive full-cycle production complex of rare-earth elements;
- promotion of import substitution of rare earth elements for the needs of high-tech and strategic sectors of the economy of the EAEU member states;
- promotion of the share of EAEU member states in world exports of rare earths;
- assistance in the development of innovative production processes and high-tech goods using REEs on the basis of scientific and technical cooperation.
The EATP “REE”’s stakeholders could be:
- a consortium of high-tech enterprises from the EAEU member states;
- a consortium of enterprises from the EAEU member states that are engaged in the extraction and processing of rare earth metals;
- a consortium of specialized research institutes and universities;
- the Eurasian Economic Commission;
- Ministries of Industry of the EAEU member states;
- Ministries of Environmental Protection of the EAEU member states;
- the Eurasian Development Bank;
- national development banks of the EAEU member states;
- interested foreign companies and banks (with no more than 49% of shares);
- NGOs of the EAEU member states that are engaged in environmental protection.
In addition to the tasks and activities that have already been outlined in the passport of the Eurasian technological platform “Technologies for the extraction and processing of solid minerals”, the main measures to support the EATP “REE” could be:
- the building an imitation (computer) model of the world market of rare earth metals, which will allow for a deeper understanding of its structure and the interrelations of its subjects;
- the establishment of research and technical cooperation between the parties to the platform;
- the establishment of cooperative production chains between enterprises from the EAEU member states in the field of mining, processing, and the production of finished products from rare earth elements.
- to contribute to the conclusion of long-term contracts to ensure the refinancing of the innovation process of REE production of the EAEU countries, including multilateral credit schemes.
Here we would like to separately single out two state support measures, which, from our point of view, would be necessary at the initial stage for the successful launch and operation of a union-wide REE industrial complex that would be competitive in the global market later on.
Firstly, it is necessary to introduce changes in the state program of the Russian Federation “Development of industry and increase of its competitiveness” (15 April 2014, N 328) , highlighting in it REE industrial cooperation and participation of the rare earth enterprises from other EAEU member states as priorities of Russia’s import substitution policy.
Secondly, in view of the strategic importance of rare earth elements for the needs of state security, the EAEU member states could agree on the introduction of quotas on various domestic rare earth products in the defense industry and defense procurement. These quotas could be low at the beginning, from 0% to 0.5%, depending on the particular REE and its application, and then be raised step by step. It would also necessary to provide delays and exceptions for countries and various spheres.
The horizons for the implementation of this project as a whole could be: until December 2021 – preparation of the EATP, and, beginning from January 2022 – launch of the EATP “REE”.
Rear earth potentials of the Eurasian Union
In 1990 USSR’s rare earth complex took third place in global production and fully met the needs of the domestic market. 8.5 thousand tons of rare earth elements were produced in the USSR annually, of which 20‒25% were oxides of individual REEs (20% of the world’s volume) .
In terms of proven reserves, Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan rank second after China with its Bayan Obo deposit in the province of Inner Mongolia .
The main operating REE deposits in the territory of the Eurasian Economic Union are:
- the Lovozero deposit in the Murmansk region (Russia);
- the Kutessay-2 deposit (Kyrgyzstan)
- Melovoye deposit (Kazakhstan). Its uranium reserves are estimated at 44 thousand tons .
Russia has significant reserves of rare earth elements in still undeveloped deposits in Eastern Siberia (Tomtorskoe, Chuktukonskoye, Katuginskoe, Beloziminskoe, etc.), which are located in remote and harsh climatic conditions. This determines the high capital cost of their potential development. According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Russian Federation, 154 million tons of ore with a niobium oxide content of 6.71%, yttrium – 0.6%, scandium – 0.048% and terbium – 9.53% are located in the Tomtor deposit in Yakutia . The start of production at the Tomtorskoe deposit is expected in the 2020s. The total capital expenditure required for this project is estimated at 560 million US dollars .
Also promising is a project to develop the eudialytic ores of the Alluive site in the Murmansk region.
Kazakhstan has eight deposits of rare earth elements: four of them are concentrated in the Mangystau region in the uranium deposits of Melovoe, Tokmak, Taibogar and Tasmuryn. The Akbulak and Kundybay deposits are located in the Kostanay region in Southern Kazakhstan.
REEs are often mined together with uranium. According to estimates of the World Nuclear Association, the Republic of Kazakhstan is second in the world (after Australia) in terms of proven uranium reserves (842.2 million tons or 14% of the world’s reserves) and first in production (about 39% of world production). Russia ranks 4th (485.6 million tons; 8%) and 6th place (5%), respectively .
In Kazakhstan, the state nuclear enterprise “Kazatomprom”, in cooperation with Japan’s “Sumitomo Group”, established a production facility in Stepnogorsk for the production of various rear earth concentrates .
The Kazakh “Irtysh Rare Earth Co. Ltd.” Currently produces small amounts of cerium oxides, however, from raw materials imported from third countries .
The Solikamsk Magnesium Plant (OAO SMZ) can process loparite concentrate obtained from the Lovozero mining and processing plant into an alloy of rare earth chlorides. They then could be shipped to Kazakhstan for further processing at the “Irtysh Rare Earth Co. Ltd.” processing plant for turning them into rare earth products for final consumption.
The Moscow Polymetallic Plant can produce oxides of rare earth metals of the yttrium group, as well as Sm-Co magnets .
In early 2018, the “Laboratory for Innovative Technologies” launched an experimental separation production line of rare earth elements in Korolev, Moscow region with a potential capacity of about 130 tons per year .
The extraction of rare earth elements and their further concentration is a very energy-intensive process. High-intensity magnetic and electrostatic methods are mainly used. In this regard, the member states of the EAEU have a competitive advantage in terms of costs, since they enjoy relatively low electricity prices. For this same reason, the Russian company “EN +”, owned by OJSC “Rusal”, is seriously planning to build data processing and mining centers near its hydropower plants in Siberia .
The subprogram “Development of the industry of rare and rare earth metals” of the state program of the Russian Federation “Development of industry and increasing its competitiveness” (2017–2020) is currently being implemented in Russia. The goal of this subprogram is the creation in Russia of a competitive industry of rare and rare earth metals with a full technological cycle to meet the needs of the domestic military-industrial industry complex, civil high-tech industries and of foreign markets. The estimated final budget of this subprogramme (based on PPP) is 145 billion rubles .
The expected effects
At the beginning of 2018, the Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Development Bank called rare earth products one of the most promising areas for EAEU exports to the world market .
The governments of the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union should set the ambitious goal of creating a powerful, innovative and competitive union-wide rare earth industrial complex. Its implementation could become of the “flagship” projects of the EAEU, which are now being actively discussed (and sought after) in the Eurasian Economic Commission and aming the scientific expert community of the member states.
There are weighty arguments in favor of the success of the development of a competitive union-wide rare earth industrial complex:
Geological exploration, mining and primary processing of metal ores is one of the traditional areas of competence, which the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan are known for internationally, along with, for example, their oil and gas industry.
Despite this, the creation of a full cycle rare earth industry could bring with it a substantial multiplier effect, as it creates the raw material base for the development of a domestic high-tech industry.
The rare earth industry is closely connected with other traditional innovative and strategic sectors that Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus are known for: nuclear energy, aerospace, and the military-industrial complex.
The development of a Eurasian rare earth industry entails significant benefits in the education and science sector of the EAEU since it creates a demand for the training of highly qualified cadres and innovative R&D projects.
Last but not least, the development of a Eurasian rare earth indthe ustrial complex will become one of the strategic building blocks of the economic and military security, and therefore sovereignty, of the member states of the Eurasian Economic Union.
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