Economics, Energy and the Environment

Rare Earths and Refiners

rare-earthsAs I’ve written before, one of the obstacles we face in becoming a “green manufacturing economy” is that much of the green tech that environmentalists love—hybrid cars, electric cars, wind turbines, solar power systems—all require something called “rare earths,” a set of elements that, while not all that rare, are highly localized around the planet. In this situation, China has come up a big winner, controlling some 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth elements.

What I hadn’t realized is that we have a rare earths problem of a different sort. A Wall Street Journal article points out that

Two of the most commonly used in the catalyst component of refiners’ gasoline-making fluid catalytic cracking units, or FCCUs, are lanthanum and cerium, both of which more than tripled in price between the second and third quarters of 2010, according to Australian rare-earth supplier Lynas Corp., LTD. Although rare earths account for only up to 4 percent of catalysts used in these units, their recent price increase has added as much as an extra 25 percent to catalyst costs, according to the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, a group representing the sector.

The Journal points out that the cost of rare earths only represents a penny or so on the gallon, but that even at that small a share, it’s “not necessarily enough to make the consumer notice if it was passed straight to the pump, but enough to make some refiners think about scaling back production to protect their margins, according to an industry analyst.”

You learn something new every day!

Image by Joost J. Bakker.

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