EDITORIAL - The potential of rare-earth metals

Published: Thursday | January 17, 2013 Comments 0

Phillip Paulwell's tendency to oversell will make some people wary about his announcement of the likelihood of the commercial extraction of rare-earth metals in Jamaica.

But this newspaper believes that the decision by the Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal Company to establish a pilot facility is a big deal, which can be judged by the coverage the issue has received globally.

It is important on two critical fronts.

From Jamaica's point of view, this is potentially the most important economic development since commercial quantities of bauxite were discovered here more than 60 years ago and we began to mine the ore and refine it to alumina.

Then, similar to when Jamaica joined the bauxite-alumina-aluminium production chain, there is the geopolitical significance of our joining the rare-earth metals market. The latter fact will require sensitive management of relations with our emerging major economic and development partner, China.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNT

Finally, there are policy lessons to learn from this development by our Government and the private sector about investment in research and development (R&D).

Rare-earth metals are a series of elements that are particularly rare, except for the fact that they are not usually found in any one place in significant deposits. They are also found grouped together in other elements.

What they are, without doubt, is very important in today's technologies.

Lanthanum, for instance, is used in the batteries of many of today's gadgets, being far more efficient than materials formerly used for the storage of power. Neodymium allows for the smaller and more powerful magnets that are essential in many of our lifestyle and other devices. Yttrium is used in lasers, and erbium amplifies light impulses when used in optical fibres that transmit data.

Scarcity and demand have made these elements expensive relative to other minerals, like, for instance, bauxite; hence, from Jamaica's perspective, the excitement over the Nippon Light Metal project.

LET'S WINK TO CHINESE

From the vantage of the West, the mining of rare metals is likely to be a good counterpoint to China, which now produces more than 90 per cent of the world's supply. Only a few years ago, there was a global furore over Beijing's potential power to manipulate the market - perhaps, even for geopolitical reasons. This caused the price of the metals to soar - although they have since fallen back - and calls for a search for alternative sources, including the reopening of American mines such as Molycorp Metal's Mountain Pass mine in California.

Kingston and Beijing enjoy a strong friendship. The Chinese are investing heavily in Jamaica's infrastructure. While Jamaica's sovereignty is inviolable and we must embrace good business opportunities, it would cost us nothing to direct a friendly word to Beijing that this move to exploit our resources implies no geopolitical manoeuvre.

The Nippon Light Metal project, positive as it is, points to a failure in Jamaica. Nearly three decades ago, research in Jamaica, including conferences organised by the Geological Society and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute on bauxite tailings, pointed to the presence of rare-earth metals and other minerals in our bauxite and bauxite tailings. However, weak government support for investment in R&D, as well as short-sightedness and an absence of aggressiveness by research institutions like the University of the West Indies and private-sector firms, caused the initial work to stagnate.

Perhaps there will now be a change.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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