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Turkey Probably Hasn’t Found the Rare Earth Metals It Says It Has

The date of: 2022-07-14
viewed: 2


With a gaping tunnel carved deep into the rock behind him, the Turkish energy and natural resources minister, Fatih Dönmez, took to his podium to reveal the big news. He proudly announced that the ground below his feet was positively bursting with rare earth elements—694 million tons’ worth. Enough to rival China, he added.

In the two weeks since, breathless news stories have hailed Turkey’s “discovery” of this gargantuan bounty. “Move over China,” one report read.

There are 17 rare earth elements, and many of them make their way into a bewildering list of high-tech products—from cameras to telescopes, x-ray machines, and missile guidance systems. Take neodymium, used to make magnets in the motors of electric vehicles and wind turbines. Or cerium, which is an important material in catalytic converters. Some rare earth elements get added to metal alloys to strengthen them.

Because they’re used in so many important products, they are of “strategic significance for the economic and military security of the West,” a paper published by Germany’s Federal Academy for Security Policy states.

And while there are actually plentiful deposits of these prized elements scattered around the globe, to date no one has rivaled China when it comes to extracting and processing them. Seventy-eight percent of all rare earth materials imported to the United States between 2017 and 2020 originated in China, according to the US Geological Survey. China also produces more than 80 percent of the world’s total rare earth refined products—compounds of these metals that are easily processed further and have all sorts of uses. The rest of the world more or less relies on China for its supply of these materials, though the country is also the largest consumer of rare earth elements.

That Turkey’s deposits could potentially upend this situation makes for a good headline. But we should take it with a sizable pinch of salt, says Kathryn Goodenough, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey. “The idea that this is some massive new reserve that we didn’t know of before is just plain wrong,” she says, adding that without a formal estimation of these resources that meets the standards of the global mining industry, it’s impossible to know the full extent of the recoverable, high-grade rare earth elements present in Turkey—and that’s what really matters.

A story in the Global Times, a publication owned by the Chinese Community Party, included a statement from the state-backed Bao Gang United Steel Group that critiqued the Turkish energy minister’s claims. “If the reserves are in the form of rare earth oxides, such scale of reserve should rank number one in the world, ahead of China,” the comment read, referring to the refined compounds containing these metals that are readily consumed by various industries worldwide. The alleged 694 million tons likely refers instead to preprocessed minerals, the statement continued. (Only after painstaking processing of these minerals are you left with the sought-after metal oxides.)

Goodenough estimates that between 0.2 and 2 percent of Turkey’s deposit is likely to be rare earth oxides, which could translate to as much as 14 million tons of the compounds. That’s hefty, but still well below China’s estimated rare earth oxide resource of 44 million tons. WIRED contacted the Turkish Ministry for Energy and Natural Resources, as well as the state-owned mining firm Eti Maden, for clarification. However, neither sent a response.

The official press release about Turkey’s “discovery” is scant on details. But Goodenough suggests that it is likely to be the well-known Kizilçaören deposit, located near the city of Eskişehir in northwestern Turkey. She and colleagues visited this deposit five years ago and have discussed its potential for rare earth extraction in academic papers. The mineral bastnäsite, which contains rare earth elements, has been identified at Kizilçaören in the past. “This deposit we have written about, it is similar to some of the big producing deposits in China,” says Goodenough. “It does have the potential to produce rare earths.”

And yet there could still be limiting factors, says David Merriman, research director for metals and mining at Wood MacKenzie, a market research company. The proportion of specific rare earth elements in the deposit matters, he explains. If it turns out to be mostly lanthanum and cerium, for example, it could be much less valuable because there is already a good supply of those particular elements.

If Turkey, or any other country, succeeds in upsizing the extraction of rare earth-laden minerals, that still leaves the question of where they will be processed. China leads the world on this front too, says Jon Hykawy, president and director of Stormcrow Capital, a consulting and research firm that focuses on rare metals.

There are multiple possible methods for separating rare earth minerals, but solvent extraction is the go-to approach in China, he explains. First, the ores are dissolved in acid and contaminants are removed to create a concentrated mix of rare earth metals. This concentrate is then dissolved again in an acid and combined with an organic fluid. The two liquids are agitated but separate again as they settle, and as they do, the rare earths move with the organic fluid in an order determined by each element’s mass. That allows them to be collected—though this step of combining and separating the acid and organic fluid might need to be repeated hundreds of times.

“It takes a long time, it’s not cheap, and it takes a significant understanding of the process itself,” says Hykawy. The operation can take weeks to complete.

The rare earth oxides recovered from this laborious endeavor are then sometimes processed into metals and finally poured in just the right way to create, for example, magnets with the desired chemical and crystal structures.

China excels at doing all of this cheaply, says Hykawy. The trouble for countries looking to get into rare earth processing is that companies want a stable, low price for these materials, and newcomers find it very hard to compete with China on this point. Indeed, there are other potential sources of rare earth elements besides China and Turkey—in Europe and Africa, as well as new rare earth operations currently getting underway in Canada and the US—but it would take the rise of another force in processing, rather than extraction, to challenge China’s dominance in the sector.

Global demand for rare earth materials is expected to remain strong in the coming years, which is why so many observers are keen to challenge China’s hold on the market. Turkey’s announcement may not yet be backed up with hard facts, but its deposit remains one to watch, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “The way I interpret this event is some members of the government in Turkey have decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It seems to me to be also a bid to attract investment.”

Any new mining operation in the area, which is near expansive tracts of agricultural land, ought to consider the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction, she adds. Chemical run-off from mines can contaminate nearby water supplies, for example.

Concerns about such effects often prompt serious local opposition to new mines. In Sweden, an iron mine in the north of the country, where large deposits of rare earths are also present, recently received government approval, despite years of outcry from environmentalists and Indigenous people.

While it is difficult to get mining right, and there are upfront costs involved when attempting to limit its impact on nature, the pressure to establish reliable rare earth supples outside China remains. Turkey might not actually be able to do this on its own, but the country could still play a role in rebalancing the global rare earth supply chain.

As Goodenough puts it: “People assume that rare earth elements are rare and China has all of them—and that’s not true at all.”

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