The China Times

NASA satellite image of Chinese rare earths mine: a dangerous enterprise grows inexorably

April 24, 2012

acquired July 2, 2001


download large image (3 MB, JPEG, 3911×2347)

acquired June 30, 2006


download large image (2 MB, JPEG, 3911×2347)

For five years, Nasa satellite Terra has captured the growth of Chinese secret facility – Bayan-Obo mine, announced the official website of NASA Earth Observatory.

China is engaged in the active supply of rare earth metals – materials needed in the production of modern electronics, such as mobile, high-tech vehicles and weapons.

20 years ago, Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s economic reform and socialist modernization, realized the value of rare earth metals hidden in the arid interior of Inner Mongolia. “In the Middle East has oil, but China has rare earths” – he noted.

For example, in 2008 China has produced 139,000 tons of lanthanum, cerium, ytterbium, and other metals throughout the world, it is 97% of world production of rare earth metals. In this case, only one mine in Bayan-Obo produces about half of the world’s supply of all 17 species of rare-earth metals.

However, as seen from satellite images of this object, made in 2001 and 2006, the mine continues to grow. In this case, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in 2001, China produced about 81,000 tons of rare earth metals, but by 2006 this number increased to 120,000.

Of course, this intensive exploitation of land and mining activities have a strong influence on the environment: according to experts organize Chinese Society of Rare Earth, from 9600 to 12000 cubic meters of waste gases (industrial emissions), containing dust, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid are released during production of each ton of rare earth metals. In addition, this production is produced about 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about a ton of radioactive residues and waste.

It should be noted that in 2010 China reduced the export quota of rare earth metals, thereby increasing the price of high-tech products. “Over the past 20 years we have seen an explosive demand for many of the elements which are required for the production of rare earth metals. Taking advantage of rich deposits of these materials and cheap labor, China has lowered the price of rare earth metals to such an extent that almost every mine outside of China was forced to close because they couldn’t compete,” said in a report published a few days ago the president of the research group The Information Network, Robert Castellano.

Meanwhile, according to a U.S. Geological Survey, the United States also have enough reserves of rare earth elements to meet the global demand for decades to come. However, the extraction of rare metals in the mountains of California has resumed only recently.

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