Vietnam should acquire the technology to process rare earth minerals instead of exporting them raw, as earnings from refined products are several hundred times higher, Bui Duc Thang, general secretary of the Vietnam Geology Federation, tells Thanh Nien Weekly.
Thanh Nien Weekly: What is Vietnam's rare earth mineral potential?
Bui Duc Thang: Our country has great potential. According to the US Geological Survey, China now ranks first in the world for rare earth mineral reserves, and Vietnam has reserves of some one million tons. In our country, most of the rare earth minerals are in the northwestern region, including the provinces of Lai Chau, Yen Bai, and Lao Cai, and some localities in the central region.
How does Vietnam tap and use these minerals?
We have not yet used these minerals widely, only as a base for testing at laboratories. Processing the minerals requires huge investments in technology. In fact, rare earth minerals are not rare. According to a US report in January, the world's reserves are estimated at 99-100 million tons. Demand (in the world for the minerals) is about 125,000 tons each year.
With an annual increase in demand of 8-10 percent, it is estimated that world reserves will remain for another thousand years. The consumption demand is not big. Even if Japan imports rare earth minerals from Vietnam, it would be for maintaining stockpiles, as it has not yet used the minerals much.
What about the benefits that we can get from exports?
Vietnam should not be too hopeful about the exports, as it will not bring in a lot of money. If we export some 10,000 tons each year at US$8,000 per ton, the (export) value is not considerable, at about $80 million. The value is too low, compared to that of crude oil. Our crude oil export revenues are over $10 billion each year.
Former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Dang Hung Vo has said our country would become poor if we did not have crude oil. But, we would not become poor if we did not have rare earth minerals and bauxite. We would not become rich thanks to rare earth minerals.
So what would be the roadmap for exporting it, if at all?
If we export the minerals to Japan, we should make the use of the opportunity to learn the technology of processing rare earth minerals, and minimize the shipment of raw mineral. Earnings from refined mineral products are hundreds of times higher than that of raw material.
Processing would not only serve the country's economic development, it would also conserve the mineral resources for coming generations. If we only tap raw minerals and export them, we would waste the country's mineral resources.
However, it is not easy to invest in building a processing factory, as world demand is not high. The difficulty is in finding markets. A processing factory for rare earth minerals requires complicated technology and huge investments. And even if we learn the technology, demand is still too low. The world does not lack the minerals, and many countries have it. With reserves of 36 million tons, China ranks first, followed by Australia and Brazil.
How should the environment be protected when these minerals are exploited?
The problem now is that wherever natural resources are tapped, the environment there is destroyed. Local residents suffer most, and only a small group of firms gain benefits. It is necessary to focus on insurance for miners, local residents, and protecting the environment.
We have to reduce shipments of raw rare earth minerals which are used only in hi-tech products such as missile radars, clean batteries, and semi-conductors. Due to the complicated processing technology, we now only use it for testing in laboratories.
However, we can strengthen processing after 2020 when we have achieved industrialization and modernization. We should avoid the trap of exporting raw materials only to buy back the refined products later. It's unreasonable.
Right now, we are selling rare earth minerals mostly to China through unofficial channels in small volumes of about a few thousand tons each year.
THE RARE EARTH CYCLE
Rare earth elements have become essential components for building smartphones, wind turbines and electric cars. Before manufacturers can use the material extracted from the ground, it must go through a complex and expensive process.
"There is a reason why the rare earths are called rare. They're not called rare because they're truly rare. They're called rare because it's very difficult to isolate these elements inpidually and it takes a lot of skill to do that," said Constantine Karayannopoulos, chief executive of Neo Material Technologies, a Toronto-based rare earth refining specialist.
The first step is to mine the ore, usually a cabonatite or monazite, that contains the rare earths. Depending on the grade, it could take anywhere from six to 86 tons of ore to produce a single ton of rare earth mineral.
Next the material goes to a chemical plant for separation. This step, called "cracking," usually involves using acid or heat. The product that comes out is a rare earth concentrate, containing all 17 rare earths mixed together. Cracking can also result in byproducts like tantallum, zirconium or radioactive thorium.
Rare earth concentrate must then go to another facility where it is separated into inpidual rare earths that are refined into oxides. Separation is done by atomic weight, starting with cerium, the most abundant rare earth. To get valuable dysprosium, for example, the less valuable rare earths that come before it on the periodic table must first be separated out. To get terbium, it takes more than 30 days of processing.
Next the rare earths are treated through a process, called benefication, that produces high-value oxides, metals or magnetic powders. These products are made to the specifications of each manufacturer. An oxide made to the specifications of one customer might not suit another's needs.
Finally, the rare earths are put into the end product, whether it is a permanent magnet for a wind turbine, or a high-efficiency lightbulb. (Source: Reuters)
Reported by Bao Van
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