“It takes a long time, it’s not cheap, and it requires a significant understanding of the process itself,” says Hykawy. The process can take weeks.
The rare earth oxides obtained in this way are then partially processed into metals and finally cast in exactly the right way to produce magnets with the desired chemical and crystalline structures, for example.
China is excellent at doing all of this cheaply, Hykawy says. The problem for countries that want to get into processing rare earths is that companies want a stable, low price for these materials and newcomers have a very hard time competing 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 underway in Canada and the US — but it would rather require the rise of another processing force as dismantling 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 have hard facts to back it up, but its deposition remains one to watch, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “As I interpret this event, some members of the government in Turkey have decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It also seems to me an attempt to attract investment.”
Any new mining operation in the area, which is close to extensive agricultural land, should consider the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction, she adds. Chemical effluents from mines, for example, can contaminate nearby water supplies.
Concerns about such impacts often lead to serious local opposition to new mines. In Sweden, an iron mine in the north of the country, which also has large deposits of rare earth elements, recently received government approval, despite years of outcry from environmentalists and indigenous peoples.
While mining is difficult to get right and there are upfront costs in trying to limit its impact on nature, the pressure to establish reliable supplies of rare earths outside of China remains. Turkey may not be able to do this alone, 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 them all — and that’s not true at all.”
Updated 7/13/2022 10:15am ET: An earlier version of this story stated that rare earths were being mined at the recently permitted mine in Sweden. While these are present in the area, the mine will only produce iron.
https://www.wired.com/story/turkey-rare-earth-metals/ Turkey Probably Hasn’t Found the Rare Earth Metals It Says It Has