Kuantan, Malaysia, seems a long way from the translucent dusk and rich red earth of peaceful Malawi. Standing in the heart of an ancient swamp the daylight is fading to an impenetrable gloom. Seeping through my toes in the dusk is brackish black peat water.
If it wasn’t for the stifling humidity and the call of a fish eagle over the pristine distant forest I could be in a stinking bog in the Scottish Hebrides. To the north of the ‘Black Jewel’ forests of southern Malaysia, where I stand, the brilliant LED lights of a remote state of the art refinery glow through the Asian night.
Over its metal ramparts, migrant Malaysian workers scurry over scaffolding like ants. They are part of a race that is seeing the world’s biggest mining and technology companies scour the ends of the earth to break China’s stranglehold on rare earths – a band of obscure but increasingly strategic metals integral to our technological world.
Today, this dank and rather obscure corner of Malaysia represents the new frontier for refining rare earths – a group of 17 largely similar metallic-chemical elements used in products from smartphones and televisions to hybrid-car batteries. This plant has been built to refine ore from the Mount Weld mine deep in the Australian desert, 2,500 miles away.
Inside these humble rocks from the outback are rare-earth minerals, crucial ingredients for smartphones, as well as wind turbines, hybrid cars, and night-vision goggles. Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets that make phone and laptop speakers vibrate to create sound. Or europium, a phosphor that creates the bright red on an iPhone screen. Let’s not forget cerium which makes our perfect metal smartphones shiny and new as they move along the assembly line.
The Malaysian refinery’s backers, Lynas, believe they will eventually be able to meet nearly a third of the world’s demand for rare earth materials here. Most crucially, Kuantan’s refinery is the first rare earth ore processing plant to be built outside China in nearly three decades.
It’s arrival, and the decision by China to scrap its quota system restricting exports of rare earth minerals after losing a World Trade Organization case, could also signal Africa’s entry into the burgeoning market. Lynas believe they are backing a clear winner as the global demand for technology reaches new heights. Yet it is a venture not without risk. Historically, rare earths have proven tricky to process.
As Malaysia learned the hard way a few decades ago, refining rare earth ore usually leaves thousands of tons of low-level radioactive waste behind. As a consequence the west has largely left the dirty work to Chinese refineries. The world’s reluctance to process rare earths has meant that China now mines and refines at least 90% of the global supply – allowing Beijing a virtual monopoly that has handed them a global trade weapon in an increasingly high-tech world.
Last September, China imposed a two-month embargo on rare earth shipments to Japan during a territorial dispute, and for a short time even blocked some shipments to the United States and Europe. It’s an environmental and economic backstory that does much to explain Lynas’ $230-million investment into the world’s most advanced rare earth refinery but one that also concerns environmentalists.
Critics of the Lynas plant claim it will generate 28,000 tons of solid waste containing radioactive by-products annually. The most controversial element in the waste cocktail, claim Greenpeace and local campaigners, is thorium, a mildly radioactive element that is toxic in large doses and easily spread through wind and water. Exposure to thorium is tied to increased risk of cancer. Although the sprawling plant is located on the Gebeng industrial estate, about 30,000 people live within a two-kilometer radius and 700,000 reside within 25 kilometers of the refinery.
Lynas claim that the final waste material will have levels of radioactivity low enough to allow it to be transported overseas. A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) also assessed the Kuantan plant and judged it to meet all safety standards.
Here, along the Andaman coast, the debate ploughs on. In many ways it feels like I have been here before. In 2006, I, like many other correspondents, obsessed over coltan, traveling across Goma and Kivu as rebel groups stationed throughout the eastern Democratic Republic Congo waged war on both one another and the government over that most pliable of soft metals – coltan – placing bonded slaves and kidnapped children into the supply chains of major electronic firms who sought it.
Coltan’s value, like rare earths, was, at the time, hard to understand. Short for columbite-tantalite, it is an ore that takes on heat-resistant properties when it gets refined. It’s also capable of holding a high electrical charge for a long time. Both characteristics make it an ideal component in circuitry design, particularly in smartphones and other electronic devices, which constantly need to improve battery life.
For NGO’s coltan was the poster boy of the so-called 3TGs: tantalum (coltan), tin, tungsten and gold, all used extensively in the electronics industry. To many within the electronics industry, coltan and other conflict minerals is an old narrative. But the truth is Africa’s entanglement with potentially damaging technology minerals might actually just be beginning.
Our obsession with technology means our need for rare earths can only grow exponentially. Today, geologists also believe Africa has more than half the world’s deposits of carbonatites, the type of rock formation seen as the prime hunting ground for rare earths.
Another advantage Africa, in particular South Africa, offers is vast amounts of monazite sands left over from other mining operations from which rare earths can be extracted. The Great Western Minerals Group’s Steenkampskraal project in South Africa, for example, has some of the highest concentrations of certain types of rare earths of any mine outside of China.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its relative low-profile in the mining sector, the most promising site on the continent is the Kangankunde Hill region of Malawi. According to the US Geological Survey and Lynas, who have interests in the southern African nation, the potential is significant.
According to Will Dawes, Chief Executive Officer of Canadian company Mkango Resources, Malawi could become Africa’s largest rare earth producer.
“Malawi ticks the boxes in terms of resource potential, a stable political environment, infrastructure and government support,” he says.
Dawes believes there are at least five potential major rare earth mines in Malawi, of which Mkango’s Songwe Hill project is the most advanced. It is undeniably a factor that could transform one of Africa’s most historically weak economies but also bring considerable environmental concerns.
As with processing rare earths, extracting individual elements from the host mineral’s chemistry is a complex and energy-intensive process, involving strong acids and other hazardous chemicals. Radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium are often found alongside rare earth elements, and these can end up in the ‘tailings’ – a toxic stew of waste products from the refinement process.
Rare earths must be separated and purified using hydro-metallurgical techniques and acid baths. As a consequence, the foul waters contain radioactive elements which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs and leukemia. But, with Malawi’s mining promise comes a lead lining to their economic cloud at least.
As a consequence of rare earths’ troubled history, major corporations like Siemens, Samsung and Toyota are already designing new products that use fewer rare earths or substitute materials.
It is also predicted that recycle rates of rare earths from existing products, very low because of the expense and complexity involved, may also increase in future. Honda, for example, has already begun extracting more than 80% of its rare earth materials from nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Julian Kirby, lead campaigner for Friends of the Earth’s Make It Better initiative, which aims to make companies come clean about their supply chains, is adamant that “environmental costs must be factored into the prices of rare earths”, creating an incentive to recycle existing materials. Kirby also believes there should be a change in reporting by major firms to ensure it includes non-financial information. Only then, he claims, will electronics manufacturers take greater responsibility.
In Malaysia, rare earth refining on their doorstep has split public opinion.
To date, more than 1.2 million people signed a petition calling for Lynas to close its plant and thousands have taken to the streets to express their opposition to the rare earth refinery operating the country. The presence of the facility has sparked one of the biggest environmental movements in Malaysian history. According to one local campaigner in Kuantan, China’s loss of its rare earth monopoly will also prove a loss for the rest of the world, including Africa, as the floodgates open on a toxic trade.