KUDOS to the Prime Minister for allowing Lynas to continue operating in Kuantan. It was the right decision because rare earths processing is a good investment.
As a nation set on taking advantage of the growing demand for the technologically-advanced products of the new global economy, it is in our interest to have good access to the rare earths.
Critics are concerned about the safety of the rare earths waste. However, all the experts, whether international or local, do not see the waste from the processing of rare earths as health-threatening.
Equating such waste to nuclear type wastes is just irresponsible. They are miles apart. If not, why is China, a major producer of rare earths for the world, not bothered by the operation of their many rare earths plants?
In fact, as declared many times by China, rare earths have proven to be an extremely strategic material for the world in the fourth industrial revolution.
Some have even suggested that rare earths may soon replace oil as the most strategic material globally.
The strategic nature of rare earths has become even clearer in the on-going trade conflict between the United States of America and China.
It was reported that China may resort to using their rare earths supply to the US as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
This has, to some extent, rattled the US side.
There is also talk of the US starting its own rare earths facility. There was a report of some exploratory visits to Malawi in Africa as part of the plan to find a new sources of supply.
Japan is also a major buyer of rare earths for its manufacturing sector. Having foreseen the emerging problem of securing a reliable supply of rare earths, Japan has invested in some facilities in the world, including Lynas.
So, instead of squabbling over a non-issue, we should be strategising on how to sustainably mine our own rare earths deposits.
I have been told by my geologist colleagues that we do have some feasible deposits of heavy rare earths. Talking to people in the rare earths business, it seems that in some high temperature applications, the heavy rare earths are preferred.
They are also priced higher than the light rare earths that Lynas produces.
Let’s face it. We need to venture into new economic areas to help the nation grow at a healthy pace.
We must always be on the look-out for new economic opportunities as our petroleum resources cannot be there forever.
Fossil fuels have their limits. Once we have mined them all, we are left with nothing.
Oil palm production is also reaching its limits. There are no new areas available for expansion and environmental groups are also breathing down our necks.
In fact, more and more attention is being directed towards exploiting the expanding volumes of waste as new resources to cope with the growth of the world’s population. By 2050, we will have 10 billion people on earth.
Depletion in natural resources has motivated many economies to look at wastes as assets. That is why interest in the circular economy has evolved.
Many developed economies now invest heavily in research and devlopment to mine such wastes for the materials needed in the various consumer products industry. We should be doing the same here.
It has been reported that the waste from the Lynas plant contains significant amounts of phosphates, which we import every year for the plantations. Why not use these and save on the high import costs?
The phosphate-rich Lynas waste would be suitable for rehabilitating the soil fertility of the land for oil palm cultivation that were mined for bauxite. At the moment, it is difficult to restart oil palm cultivation on these plots!
Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia