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Bayan Obo: The Chinese Mine That Makes All Gadgets Possible

Bayan Obo mine

In the image above, captured by NASA’s Terra satellite in June 2006, we see some deep scars in the desert—the result of nearly sixty years of mining. The area imaged lies in the west of Inner Mongolia, which is, despite its name, a part of China. The whole of Mongolia was once under Chinese occupation, but once the Qing dynasty fell in the early 20th century, Mongolia declared independence. A part of Mongolia was retained by China, which became Inner Mongolia. The rest, which is still referred to as Outer Mongolia by some people, became Mongolia proper.

The politics is complicated, but one of the reasons why China never allowed Inner Mongolia to reconcile with the Outer is because the former is choke full of natural resources—resources that are so precious that China is extremely loath to share the produce of these mines with other countries.

These mines produce rare earth, a group of 17 elements that are vital to many modern technologies and devices that people use every day such as smartphones, laptops, cameras, rechargeable batteries, electric and hybrid vehicles, televisions, and so on. Rare earths are used as catalysts, phosphors, and as polishing compounds. They are used in night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, communications equipment, GPS equipment, lasers, and radar and sonar systems. Rare earth elements have unusual magnetic and electrical properties that help us build stuff that are smaller, faster, lighter and stronger. One notable example is the neodymium magnet. Anybody who has handled a neodymium (a rare earth element) magnet knows how strong these magnets are compared to ferrite magnets, despite their small size. Without neodymium magnets, you can’t have spindle motors on hard drives, vibrators on your smartphones and the tiny speakers in your headphones. Rare earth elements are not needed in large quantities, but they are an essential constituent, like “spices or vitamins” as Elisabeth Berry Drago of Science History Institute puts it.

rare earth elements

The 17 rare earth elements. Rendering by FoxPictures/Shutterstock.com

rare earth elements

Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Photo credit: Peggy Greb, US department of agriculture

In spite of the name, rare earth elements are not exactly scarce. Cerium, a rare earth element, is the 25th most abundant element on earth, more abundant than copper. Even thulium and lutetium, the two least abundant rare earth elements, are nearly 200 times more abundant than gold. However, these metals are very difficult to mine because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.

As of now, China produces a staggering 97 percent of all rare earth elements used by the industry the world over. Nearly two-third of these come from the mines pictured in the satellite image above. This stranglehold that China has on the production and distribution of this precious component is one of the reasons why the gadget manufacturing industry in China is so huge and profitable.

For the past decade, China has been steadily decreasing its exports of rare earth to other countries in a clear attempt to starve its competitors. China claims that the restrictions on exports were made to protect its environment and the precious metals themselves from over-exploitation. But nothing could be further than the truth. The level of pollution in Baotou, a city located 120 kilometers south of the Bayan Obo mines, is nauseating. The prefecture-level city where the factories and refineries are located, is home to 2.6 million people.

Baotou rare earth

Skyline of Baotou. Photo credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

Tim Maughan, a BBC correspondent, described 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,” he wrote.

More from Maughan’s report:

Baotou’s many coal-burning power stations sit unsettlingly close to freshly built apartment towers. Everywhere you look, between the half-completed tower blocks and hastily thrown up multi-storey parking lots, is a forest of flame-tipped refinery towers and endless electricity pylons. The air is filled with a constant, ambient, smell of sulphur. It’s the kind of industrial landscape that America and Europe has largely forgotten.

“Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes,” laments Li Guirong, secretary general of the local branch of the Communist party, and one of the few residents who dares to speak out.

The mine started in 1958, and by the end of the 1980s, crops in nearby villages started to fail, Li explained. “Plants grew badly. They would flower all right, but sometimes there was no fruit or they were small or smelt awful.” Ten years later, vegetables stopped growing altogether. The air is full of fumes of sulphuric acid and coal dust, while the soil and groundwater are saturated with toxic substances.

Baotou rare earth

A refinery in Baotou pumps toxic and radioactive tailings into an adjacent artificial lake. Photo credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

China’s monopoly on rare earth elements and its self-imposed trade restrictions has been challenged by the World Trade Organization. Other nations are desperately trying to find alternative sources in Australia, Europe, North and South America and Africa. Many existing mines in these countries were driven out of business when China undercut world prices in the 1990s, and it will take some years to restart production. Another option is to recycle electronic waste. According to one news report, there is an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths stored in unused electronics in Japan alone.

Ironically, although China controls the rare earth market, only 30 percent of the world’s deposits are located there. The rest of the countries are just too worried about polluting their environment. In central Spain, for instance, a rare-earth mining project was proposed that could have supplied one-third of Europe’s annual demand. But the project was suspended by regional authorities due to social and environmental concerns.

Things are different in China. Here, environment always takes the backseat.

“It could be argued,” writes Tim Maughan, “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.”

Baotou rare earth

A refinery in Baotou pumps toxic and radioactive tailings into an adjacent artificial lake. Photo credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

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