South Korea reveals targets for rare earths

South Korea has set out its stall on rare earths – saying it intends to almost double its production of the valuable resource, plus lithium, next year.

According to Bloomberg, the South Korean government wants to ramp up supplies of both rare earths and lithium from Korean-owned mines from 5.5 percent of annual requirements this year to up to 10 percent next year. The emailed statement was sent from the Ministry of Knowledge, but anyone itching to find out more of the juicy details will just have to wait as it didn’t elaborate any further.

Bloomberg added that, separately, South Korea is planning to increase stockpiles of about 30 minor metals, including rare earths and lithium, to the equivalent of 13.5 days of consumption next year – compared to 8.1 days this year.

The statement followed news that South Korea, which currently imports almost all of its energy and minerals, had recently discovered its own reserves of rare earths. As we reported last month, a modern day gold rush started when the country announced plans to re-open an ore mine in Yangyang, Gangwon Province.

Meanwhile, other countries around the globe have been clamouring to either find their own reserves of rare earths – which are used to make electronic components for everything from cars to mobile phones – or forge alliances with others to produce them. This comes amid growing international concern over the monopoly perceived to be held by China, which currently controls more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, and has been tightening export quotas. 

Last month, Toshiba signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Mongolia for the co-development of its rare earth materials. Australia has also committed to a supply pact with Japan over rare earths. And the US has discovered its own significant deposits of rare earth scattered around 14 states, including California, Alaska and Florida.

And the EU? At a recent meeting, it pleaded with China to allow more exports of rare earths.

While everyone is desperately looking for a way to secure alternative supplies of rare earths, they may be scuppered by the practicalities of it all.

The problem is that, while the rare earth deposits might be there, extracting them is expensive and time consuming. It can take years just to build the mines.

As we reported recently, the US Geological Society has warned: “Many… nickel mines have required in excess of 10 years of process development plus delays because of market timing.

“A new REE mine would almost certainly fall into this last category for many of the same reasons — complex metallurgy and restricted opportunities for market entry.”

For example, Australia’s first mine is expected to be completed by 2013 at the earliest. And the next should begin in 2014. 

In South Korea, full commercial mining isn’t due to begin until 2012.