“It takes a long time, it’s not cheap, and it takes a significant understanding of the process itself,” says Hykawy. The operation can take weeks to complete.
The rare earth oxides recovered from this laborious endeavor are then sometimes processed into metals and finally poured in just the right way to create, for example, magnets with the desired chemical and crystal structures.
China excels at doing all of this cheaply, says Hykawy. The trouble for countries looking to get into rare earth processing is that companies want a stable, low price for these materials, and newcomers find it very hard to compete 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 getting underway in Canada and the US—but it would take the rise of another force in processing, rather than extraction, 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 be backed up with hard facts, but its deposit remains one to watch, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “The way I interpret this event is some members of the government in Turkey have decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It seems to me to be also a bid to attract investment.”
Any new mining operation in the area, which is near expansive tracts of agricultural land, ought to consider the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction, she adds. Chemical run-off from mines can contaminate nearby water supplies, for example.
Concerns about such effects often prompt serious local opposition to new mines. In Sweden, an iron mine in the north of the country, where large deposits of rare earths are also present, recently received government approval, despite years of outcry from environmentalists and Indigenous people.
While it is difficult to get mining right, and there are upfront costs involved when attempting to limit its impact on nature, the pressure to establish reliable rare earth supples outside China remains. Turkey might not actually be able to do this on its own, 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 all of them—and that’s not true at all.”
Updated 7-13-2022 10:15 am ET: An earlier version of this story stated that rare earths would be extracted at the recently approved mine in Sweden. While these are present in the area, the mine will only extract iron.