Brazil sees opportunity in Chinese rare earth export limits

4th February 2011 By: Keith Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

China’s announcement, in December, that it was going to cut the rare earth export quotas for this year – following a previous reduction in such quotas during the second half of last year – has led Brazilian officials to urge their government to stimulate the mining and processing of rare earths in the South American country.

China currently produces more than 97% of the world’s rare earths, amounting to 120 000 t/y, while Brazilian production accounts for less than 1%, or 650 t in 2009.

But, at the end of last year, a joint working group of specialists from Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy and Ministry of Science and Technology submitted a report to the government highlighting the opportunities created by the Chinese decision and by the growing global demand for rare earth metals in high technology applications and strategic industries, the newspaper O Globo reported on Wednesday.

The global rare earth market was worth some $2-billion last year and could be worth as much as $9-billion in 2012. A report by an agency of the US Congress has forecast that global demand for rare earths will be about 180 000 t in 2012, in comparison to 134 000 t last year.

The working group’s report recognises that the bulk of rare earth exploration and exploitation activities would have to be undertaken by the private sector. Currently, rare earth deposits are known to exist in the districts of Catalão (Goáis state), Pitinga (Amazonas state) and São Francisco do Itabapoana (Rio de Janeiro state).

The last named district contains the Buena operation, which is Brazil’s main rare earth producer, owned by the State-owned Nuclear Industries of Brazil (abbreviated to INB in Portuguese) and which has a reserve of 20 000 t of ore.

INB is responsible for this operation because the ore being mined is monazite, which contains both uranium and thorium. The concentrations of uranium and thorium are too low to be economically viable by-products, but high enough to make the mine tailings radioactive, requiring special handling.

The operation is close to the sea and the ore body is known to continue under the sea bed. As a result, and separately from the recommendations of the joint working group, the INB is holding talks with the Fluminense Federal University, which has five campuses in Rio de Janeiro state, to develop a research programme to locate exploitable rare earth resources under the sea bed.

Interestingly, during the 1950s South Africa was the world number one producer of rare earths.