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Rare Earths – An Example Of Why Government Is So Terrible At Solving Problems



The Times gives us a breathless article about how the UK Government is marching forwards to solve the rare earths problem:

The integrated review of Britain’s foreign and defence policy, published last month, identified the reliance on rare earths as a security concern and said the country needed to diversify its supply of critical goods and establish agreements to “keep trade in critical goods open in times of crisis”.

The government is sponsoring a deep-sea mining project carried out in the Pacific by UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the American defence company Lockheed Martin’s British division.

This being a perfect example of why government is so bad at solving problems.

It is true that the world – and thus the UK defence industry – is dependent mostly upon China production and Chinese processing of rare earths. It’s even possible that we’d like to be not quite so dependent. OK, so there’s our problem, how do we solve it?

The government is haring off trying to find more sources of rare earth ore – or possibly rare earth concentrate. Which is not, in fact, the problem. Those mountains of China Clay waste in Cornwall contain rare earths. As, in fact, does much of Cornwall itself. Processing wastes from zirconia, mineral sands deposits, bits and pieces from tin or lithium mining, all are entirely viable sources of rare earth ores and or concentrates.

This is not a problem we need to solve by going and looking at parts of the Pacific Ocean. Even there they seem to be looking at the wrong part of it anyway. The interesting finding out there is that the ocean itself seems to preferentially deposit the rare earth contents of the dust plumes from undersea volcanoes. So preferentially that certain areas of seabed dust – not nodules – are significantly enriched in rare earths. Unfortunately they’re 5,000 feet down which is a bit of a bugger.

The actual problem we’ve got is that the viable sources we have access to are in xenotime and monazite. Both of which will near always also contain thorium. And there’s really no way that anyone is going to get the licences to process something containing thorium in Europe.

That is, our problem is not sourcing things that contain rare earths. Our problem is in processing the things that contain rare earths.

What is government concentrating upon? Sourcing things that contain rare earths. Which is the evidence we need to show that government is shit at solving problems.

If you really wanted to solve the rare earths problem you would go look at processing, not sourcing. They’re not, are they?



  1. As I remember it, the first “we’re going to mine seabed nodules” scheme was in fact cover for the CIA tapping submarine telecoms cables. There’s a lot of new cables either going into the Pacific or planned to go in in the near future. Those taps don’t install themselves and the Yanks seem to be a bit more iffy about sharing intel data these days.

  2. All true, but sailing about the Pacific, dipping one’s toes in the deepest clear waters and enjoying R & R in exotic locales is several times more enjoyable than mucking about the cold, wet detritus of earlier mining in Cornwall.


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