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A worker at a rare-earths mining operation prepares to pour molten metal into a mould near the town of Damao in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on October 31, 2010. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)
A worker at a rare-earths mining operation prepares to pour molten metal into a mould near the town of Damao in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on October 31, 2010. (DAVID GRAY/REUTERS)

Common sense and rare earths Add to ...

Right now, you probably have rare-earth minerals within inches of you. In your laptop battery. In your cell phone battery. In your guided missile launch facility. Well, maybe not the last one.

But as this excellent Globe and Mail report on rare earths shows, they are a critical element in our modern lives. "These obscure minerals - 17 different elements with futuristic names such as neodymium, samarium, yttrium and lanthanum - are crucial for everything from guided missiles and hybrid cars to flat-screen televisions, iPods and BlackBerry phones."

While it has only 37 per cent of the world reserves, China has cornered the market on rare earths by using cheap labour and low environmental standards to undercut prices and control the supply chain. With no competitors left, the Chinese are now using rare earths as a weapon in international diplomacy.

In a recent spat with Japan, China embargoed rare earths from the hungry Japanese technology market. The Pentagon sees China's control of a critical element in America's military arsenal as a national security issue, and is pressuring to get a diversified supply chain running.

This relatively tiny market is now the pinch-point in a $4.8-trillion dollar global industry. Japan responded to the Chinese hoarding of rare earths by instituting a major recycling program, harvesting the materials found in old computers, cell phones, and televisions. Until new mines, refineries and production facilities are able to diversify away from the Chinese supply chain, reduced consumption in non-essential items and ramped up recycling is the best bet.

Unfortunately, Ontario's waste electronics program could be the victim of partisan short-sightedness. The opposition pledges to end the program if they win power, likely oblivious to the risk that poses to major employers like RIM and to national security. Rather than eliminating the program, it would make more sense to refocus it on recovering these valuable elements for reuse along with keeping toxic materials out of landfills.

Another opportunity the potential for some primary extraction here in Canada. Ontario uranium sometimes yields the rare earth element Yttrium as a by-product. There is a major project underway to mine rare earths at Hoidas Lake in Northern Saskatchewan with the potential to produce 10% of North American needs. Thor Lake in the Northwest Territories also has the potential to be a major source of rare earths.

The constricted supply chain for rare earths is a national and continental challenge, and one that requires a role for the federal government. Instituting a national waste electronics recovery program could be key to ensuring Canadians have a supply of these crucial materials in the years ahead. And supporting private initiatives to extract these resources could help put Canada at the forefront of this industry.

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