“It takes a lot of time, it’s not cheap, and it takes a significant understanding of the process itself,” says Hykawy. The operation may take weeks.
The rare earth oxides collected in this difficult endeavor are then sometimes processed into metals and finally cast in the right way to create, for example, magnets with the desired chemical and crystal structure.
China excels at doing all this on the cheap, says Hykawy. The problem for countries looking to get into rare earth processing is that companies want a stable, low price for these materials, and it’s very difficult for newcomers to compete with China on this. Indeed, besides China and Turkey, there are other potential sources of rare earth elements – in Europe and Africa, as well as new rare earth operations currently underway in Canada and the US – but this would require the rise of another processing power, rather than extraction, to challenge China’s dominance in this sector.
Global demand for rare earths is expected to remain strong in the coming years, leaving many observers keen to challenge China’s hold on the market. Turkey’s announcement may not yet be supported by hard facts, but its deposit remains to be watched, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “The way I interpret this event is that some members of the Turkish government decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It seems to me that it is also an attempt to attract investment.”
Any new mining operation in the area, which is located near large areas of agricultural land, needs to consider the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction, she adds. Chemical waste from mines can contaminate nearby water supplies, for example.
Concerns about such effects often generate serious local opposition to new mines. In Sweden, an iron mine in the north of the country, which also has large deposits of rare earths, recently won government approval, despite years of protests from environmentalists and indigenous people.
While mining is difficult to get right, and there are upfront costs when trying to limit their impact on nature, the pressure to establish a reliable supply of rare earths outside of China remains. Turkey might not actually be able to do it alone, but the country could still play a role in rebalancing the global rare earth supply chain.
As Goodenough says: “People assume that rare earth elements are rare and that China has them all – and that’s not true at all.”
Updated on 7/13/2022. 10:15 a.m. ET: An earlier version of this story said rare earths would be extracted at a recently approved mine in Sweden. While they are present in the area, the mine will only extract iron.