neodymium-powder

Baotou Halts Making Rare-Earths to Spike Prices. WTF!

To quote the dance performance students in my 8am Stage Lighting class, this is “jank.”  (I’m pretty sure that means that it’s f%$#ed up.)

Well, that it is.  This whole thing is certainly jank.  The “this” that I’m referring to is the fact that a Chinese government-linked company named Baotou Steel has been halting production of its rare earth elements since October 20 in order to “balance the market and stabilize supply and demand.”  I think that’s Mandarin for drive up the prices of rare earth elements, because Baotou supplies more rare earth elements than any other company in the world.  China as a whole produces 95% of the world’s rare earth element supply, so really other than a price driving measure, this is pointless.

From a Reuters article on the shutdown and the China state reaction, which seems to be actually driving this MCF:

China has resolved to streamline the chaotic rare earth sector by encouraging consolidation and cracking down on illegal private production, cited as the key reason for the decline in prices over the past few months.  It has imposed a national output cap of 93,800 tonnes for 2011, and has vowed to crack down on producers that exceed their quotas.

It launched a four-month inspection campaign at the beginning of August to ensure that production quotas, pollution standards and consolidation targets were being met.

The industry ministry said in a statement posted on its website last Friday that it planned to “strengthen monitoring and inspections” in the coming months, saying that it would pay particular attention to punishing traders and processors that receive illegally-mined rare earth products.

The region of Inner Mongolia in China’s northeast, the source of most of the country’s light rare earths, has forced a number of small firms to merge with Baotou Rare-Earth , and has also been cutting off electricity supplies to private producers to force them to shut down, local media reported.

With incentives high for private producers, China has traditionally struggled to impose its will on the sector. Total output exceeded the production quota by around 40,000 tonnes last year, and traders also resorted to smuggling in order to get round a strict export cap.

What does this mean, really, and why am I reporting on this on JimOnLight.com?  Well, have you ever purchased an MSR arc lamp or bought anything lighting that has neodymium in it?  Philips’ Reveal lamps are made with neodymium inside the envelope, for example, to get that great high color temperature and whiter light.  Also to be fair, there are tons of other manufacturers who make neodymium light bulbs, and they’re great for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Yeah.  So the prices for those things and thousands of other things both in our industry and outside of it that use rare earth minerals (oxides, typically) are going to go up.  Great.  Fans of rare-earth magnets as well will be well frustrated by this little market making exercise.

I had to know what kind of rare earths this company produces – I found a JPEG list of their product line on their pretty pitifully designed website (they aren’t web developers, obviously, they’re rare earth miners and steel makers), here’s the Rare Earths section:

Yep, Neodymium Oxide is on there, and it’s a primary ingredient in doping glass for lighting.  It’s technically Neodymium (III) Oxide (for all you Chemical Abstract Society readers out there), and it’s used all over the place.  Get ready for the price to go up.  Neodymium is used to make lasers (it’s a pretty great gain medium around the IR wavelengths (1054-1064)), as well as tons of other stuff that’s now going to get more expensive.

That image shows some of the National Ignition Facility laser filters – all doped with Neodymium.  I’m interested but not excited to see what this does to prices across the lighting and photonics industries.

Neodymium is pretty interesting when in glass doping for lamps – from an article at Wikipedia on Neodymium (a cool read, please do):

A neodymium glass light bulb, with the base and inner coating removed, under two different types of light: incandescent on the right, and fluorescent on the left. This demonstrates the difference in color of neodymium glass under different lighting conditions. These two photos were taken with identical white balance and coloration and no post-processing, except for cropping. (ISO, shutter speed and aperture were changed between the shots, but this changes only exposure and has basically no effect on the color of the pictures.) The only difference is the type of illumination: fluorescent or incandescent.

Ah, capitalism.

Thanks to LightNOW (which is an awesome blog, btw), IndustryWeek, Wikipedia, and the NIF

4 replies
  1. Jordan Green
    Jordan Green says:

    My mom has a blown glass bird that changes color under florescent light to pink from a greenish blue.  I always wondered how they did it, but this makes it all clear.  I changed the lamp in the table lamp over it to a CFL so it could be pink without having to bring it out to the garage or storage room (the only rooms in the house with actual florescent fixtures).  Now I can actually explain the science behind it too.

  2. Doug MacDonald
    Doug MacDonald says:

    More to the point, Rare Earth phosphors are used in all modern fluorescent lamps.  This is likely to cause a spike in the price of the most common lamps used in commercial spaces worldwide.  That said, even if the price goes up by 50% on those lamps, they’ll still be cheaper than most LED solutions.  The biggest danger is probably an increase in the sales of household incandescents as CFL prices spike.

  3. Noah
    Noah says:

    I was informed by my light bulb supplier a few months ago that this was pending and that prices for CFLs and the like WILL be going up 50%. 

  4. Fred
    Fred says:

     Jim —
    You mention in passing “neodymium light bulbs, … great for people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder.”
    Unless you have some recent objective third-party documentation otherwise, I believe the science on this hasn’t borne out the claims of many marketers. Neodymium incandescents may improve color quality and subjective experience, however they are no more efficacious in treating S.A.D. than appropriate levels and durations of generally white light.
    — Fred

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