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The Argument Against Industrial Policy – It Will Be Designed By The Ignorant

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An industrial policy is something every politician thinks we should have because it means that politicians get to design the industrial policy – act as Fat Controllers for the economy. The argument against an industrial policy is that politicians will design it. The thing being that things designed by the ignorant tend not to enhance life.

Conservative Home has been running a short series about what that industrial policy should be. Here’s the contribution from Alan Mak (who the hell he? – Ed):

The on-going trade dispute between the US and China has put the spotlight on so-called “critical minerals”. We in Britain cannot afford to be passive observers. Instead, we should take an active interest in this key strategic and economic issue, and play a leading role in safeguarding access to critical minerals, both for ourselves and our Five Eyes allies. Ensuring our scientists, manufacturers and technology businesses have a secure and reliable supply of critical minerals is vital for Britain’s leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Critical minerals consist of the 17 Rare Earth Elements (REE) recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, with names such as promethium and scandium, plus other economically valuable

This is going to start sounding picky but this is concerning my professional expertise (ie, not journalistic nor think tank but actually having been there and done that). Using promethium as an example of rare earths (to emphasise the professional competence there was a about a decade back there when I handled 50% of the world’s consumption of scandium each year) is just silly. While it is indeed one we don’t in fact get it from rare earth deposits. Because it’s radioactive, d’ye see? And with a fairly short half life, meaning that if we stored some and then came back to use it then we’d have a nice lump of mixed Nd and Sm, not the original Pm.

In fact the half life is so short that globally there’s perhaps a pound of it – 1lb – at any one time in the naturally occurring stock. Which is why we don’t go get it from the rare earth ores it’s not in but pick it out of the wastes of a nuclear reactor instead.

I know, I know, minor point except someone who starts off like this is clearly not entirely au fait with the world he’s trying to plan nor regulate, is he?

but relatively rare minerals such as lithium and cobalt (used in batteries), tungsten (used in defence products including missiles), bauxite (the source of aluminium) and graphite (key to battery production).

Lithium, cobalt, tungsten, these are not minerals they are elements. Yes, this is important – see above about not being au fait. When talking about bauxite – which, to be fair, actually is a mineral – the leap is to the other end of absurdity. Bauxite is one of the most common minerals upon the planet. That it’s $50 a tonne – a price we’ll use among us friends – isn’t an indication of great rarity now, is it?

Although they are more abundant than their name implies, REEs and critical minerals are difficult and costly to mine and process. Converting critical minerals embedded in rocks from under the Earth’s crust to separated elements is a complex and costly process which often involves the use of highly concentrated acids and radiation.

No, it doesn’t involve radiation. That would mean our pouring particles into the ores in order to create or separate out the individual metals. Which isn’t what we do at all, that’s an entirely different process called transmutation. Entirely possible of course and something regularly done in research and isotope production reactors. But not how we gain our REEs – other than promethium.

What he means is that there are wastes from the process that are radioactive. Which indeed there are, there’s almost always some thorium around which has to be stored off somewhere. But that’s not “radiation”. No, there’s no mileage in saying well, it’s sorta the same thing. This bloke wants to pan this sector of the economy for us and he keeps using words and concepts which just don;t apply. That’s not going to result in a good plan, is it?

For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for around 90 per cent of the world’s cobalt production in 2018, whilst Guinea dominates bauxite, with around 35 per cent of the world’s reserves.

Cobalt? DRC? No, more like 65%. Bauxite reserves? Again, this is betraying a woeful ignorance of the subject under discussion. Reserves just means who has gone out and measured the stuff. The availability of things we can make aluminium from is essentially inexhaustible given that Al is one of the commonest elements in the lithosphere.

The solution is, apparently:

The Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and the UK has been in existence since 1941 and provides the perfect foundation on which we should develop a new critical minerals reserve that would end our collective vulnerability of supply.

The reserve would consist of inter-connected physical national stockpiles of critical minerals, and then extend to become a processing chain that all partners could draw on.

Why would it benefit us to have a stockpile of promethium? Or, say, tungsten? We can always go dig up a bit more of Cornwall to get that. A stockpile of bauxite is ludicrous – we don’t have an alumina refinery to process it, we don’t even have an aluminium smelter to process the alumina. We do though already have a lot of aluminium furnaces which can reprocess aluminium scrap meaning we don’t need the bauxite anyway.

We need more facilities like the University of Birmingham’s Recycling Plant at Tyseley Energy Park, which is pioneering new techniques that are transforming the recycling of critical minerals such as neodymium, which is commonly found in hard disk drives.

No, it isn’t. It’s commonly found in the magnets in HDDs. This being important because it’s found there in gramme quantities. Worth, once processed, perhaps 3 pence per HDD. Which isn’t really worth reprocessing an HDD for. It’s also not found in the more modern ones.

It is though found in the magnets for windmills – but there in tonne quantities which are more interesting.

The point about all of this being to show why industrial policy is always such a dud. It’s designed by politicians – by definition the people ignorant of the subject under discussion. As we’ve just shown….

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