CHINA’s Chairman Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) once said, “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth.” In 1987, he predicted that one day, rare earths will replace oil in lubricating the world’s economy – an economy driven by sustainability where fossil fuels were no longer critical.
Finding solutions to the climate change dilemma is a key global agenda. All the polls show there are more believers in climate change than deniers now, even in the United States. Globally, countries have embraced low-carbon economic development policies.
In Malaysia, we have created a ministry to tackle climate change. In fact, Kuala Lumpur has announ-ced plans to become a low-carbon city. Kudos to the government. I hope this will be reflected in the 12th Malaysia Plan.
The much talked-about Industry 4.0 (aka the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is also a global approach to supporting a sustainable fossil-fuel-free economy. There is no stopping the deployment of robotics, artificial intelligence and digital technologies in the coming years.
And as predicted by Chairman Deng, rare earths are now critical to this new economy. Many of the devices and components of Industry 4.0 need rare earth elements. The production of super magnets is another growing sector in which rare earths are critical. No wonder China gives these elements such high priority. At the moment, it dominates global supply.
In the early years, rare earth extraction and processing was haphazard, and issues of public and environmental safety were largely ignored. This created serious environmental problems that were highlighted by the Western media.
Things have changed. Now China enforces very strict environmental and safety regulations, pushing rare earth processing plants to change the way they operate.
Not many countries have large deposits of rare earths like China. The only other country with reasonable quantities is Australia. However, economics does not favour Australia when it comes to processing rare earths. It would be economically better for processing facilities to be closer to countries such as Europe, Japan and the United States where demand for these elements is high.
This is why Australia chose to site one of its processing plants in Malaysia, apart from the attractive investment package.
Lynas is the biggest rare earths processing facility outside China. According to US expert Jack Lifton (a guest at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia), the facility at Lynas is in a class of its own. In meeting international standards for public safety and environmental well-being, Lynas stands above all others, winning awards for efficiency and safety.
Since rare earths are so in demand by the global economy, the business of their extraction and processing is politicised.
In the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, it has been reported that rare earths offer China a bargaining chip. Especially as some rare earths are critical in weapons development. The European Union countries and Japan also worry about supply cuts. In the EU, there is active research to find alternative materials and Japan is exploring the marine environment for rare earth deposits.
While others are concerned about rare earth supply cuts, we seem oblivious to the opportunities. Instead of thinking of how to best gain from the supply right on our doorstep, we keep arguing about how to deal with Lynas.
It is time we admit the fact that rare earths processing is not a threat to public safety, as exaggerated by some.
I have always said that the only way to convince critics is to arrange visits to China’s plants. Or if they prefer somewhere closer, go to Paris and visit La Rochelle where a 25-year-old rare earth plant is operating right smack in a tourist area!
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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