Wednesday, September 2, 2009

China the Mineral King

African nations have long been recognized as the source of abundant minerals on which our modern society relies. Nearly 80 percent of the strategic minerals we need originate in Africa. An estimated 97 percent of the world’s platinum is from Africa, as well as 90 percent of the cobalt, 80 percent of the chromium, 64 percent of the manganese, half the world’s gold reserves and as much as a third of all uranium. In recent years, the mineral coltan (columbite-tantalite), largely coming from Africa, has enabled the development of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. We would be hard-pressed to construct jet aircraft, automobile catalytic converters or iPods without the minerals found in Africa, and in some cases, almost nowhere else in the world. And this is not even taking into account oil and natural gas from African producers, who are steadily gaining a global market share.

However, China, which has increasingly attempted to lock up much of the supply of strategic minerals from African countries, is now the leading producer of what are known as rare earth elements or rare earth metals. These are 17 chemical elements in the periodic table, which are used in various technological devices, such as superconductors, electronic polishers, refining catalysts and hybrid car components. As time goes on, these minerals will increase in importance in the 21st century economy.

As it happens, South Africa used to be the world’s leading source for these minerals. South Africa still produces some rare earth concentrates, but its production is dwarfed by what China produces, which now represents 95% of rare earth supplies. Chinese production often releases toxic wastes into the general water supply, and that would tend to discourage increased South African production absent what could be expensive environmental safeguards.

Yet another issue tends to discourage South Africa or other foreign attempts to compete with Chinese rare earth production. China has instituted export quotas to limit the amount of rare earths sent abroad. This has shifted the knowledge base since companies like General Motors are now forced to move staff and production facilities to China. Thus, most of the research and extraction expertise is flowing to China and not South Africa or other rare earth producers.

These developments make it all the more important for Africa to maintain control over what rare earths it does produce, as well as the strategic minerals it currently produces and any future discoveries of new vital mineral products. Along with its current stranglehold over rare earths, Chinese monopoly over supplies of African strategic minerals would be an alarming development – not only for Africa, but for the global marketplace as well.

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