China produces at least 90% of the world’s rare earth elements (REE). The country has curbed output and exports since 2009, when the quota was set at 50145t in a bid to conserve resources and protect the environment.

But in the first 11 months of 2011, China exported only 14750t of rare earths.

As demand increases, alternative sources of the metals are being sought including blast furnace slag which contain ytterbium and lutetium in similar concentrations to bastnäsite ore – the major source of REEs.

Demand for rare earth elements is growing as their use in such applications as strong permanent magnets for electric cars and wind turbines, which contain neodymium, and hydrogen storage tanks. A typical hybrid or all electric car contains 20kg REEs. Also many electronic applications use REEs such as for doping optic fibres to amplify data signals and in high power lasers.

China has set the export quota for 2012 at around 31130t. The Ministry of Commerce announced in late December 2011 the first batch rare earth export quota for 2012, totalling 24904t, including 21700t for light rare earths and 3204t for heavy elements. This first round quota accounts for about 80% of the full-year volume for 2012, said the Ministry.

Partly sourced from China Metals e-mail