China controls as much as 80% of the world's rare earth mineral supply. Image: Facebook

JAKARTA – Rare earth, the experts like to say, is neither rare nor is it earth. But given its use in everything from smartphones to high-tech aerospace and defense systems, a potential buried treasure from the past may soon become the next big thing in Indonesian mining.

Indonesia appears to have only modest proven amounts of the v valuable minerals, but much of what it does have is locked away in the rock waste, or tailings, left over from centuries of tin mining on the islands of Bangka and Belitung, south of Singapore.

Although preliminary studies show state-owned PT Tambang Timah’s tin sands contain 13 of the 17 chemical elements in the periodic table present in rare earths, it will take further investigation to determine whether it is present in commercial quantities.

If it is, that would make Indonesia a player in an industry that is fast becoming a new trade war flashpoint between the United States and China because of its strategic significance for numerous civilian and military technologies, including both laser and precision-guided missiles.

China currently controls 80% of the world’s trade in rare earths and could conceivably  block US access in retaliation for any future Washington sanctions on Chinese-made goods.  

With proven reserves of 327,500 tons, Timah still produces about 30,000 tons of tin a year from an offshore-onshore concession covering 512,369 hectares; other private firms add 40,000 tons, making Indonesia the world’s largest tin producer. 

Rare earths also occur in Aceh, Jambi and Riau’s Singkep Island and in West Kalimantan, where they are associated with rich deposits of bauxite, the feedstock for a US$695 million alumina smelter the Chinese are building north of Pontianak, the province capital.

Historically, most rare earths have been produced as by-products from tin, copper and gold mining, but were not considered worth processing and have invariably ended up in stockpiles, as is the case with Tambang Timah.   

Aerial view of Indonesia’s Grasberg copper and gold mine in West Papua. Picture: Facebook

With the US distracted by internal problems, the only outside interest so far in Indonesia’s potential has inevitably come from China, which has 55 million tonnes of rare earth reserves, by far the largest in the world.

But in looking for investors elsewhere, such as the US and Australia, the government is anxious to develop domestic expertise in the complex seven-stage process of refining monazite and xenotime, the two minerals that house REE elements.

Where the US may have an edge over China is in handling radioactive thorium, which is released in the course of the processing and must be treated with extreme care, even if it doesn’t produce uranium’s dangerous gamma rays. 

Laboratory results indicate Timah’s tailings contain significant quantities of neodymium and praseodymium, which in combination with iron and boron are used to produce high-power magnets for electric motors and military guidance and control systems.

Indonesia already possesses 80% of the minerals, rare earths included, needed to manufacture lithium batteries, part of the government’s policy of venturing into electric vehicles as a way of creating a future industrial base built around its vast natural resources.

Neodymium is responsible for most rare earth demand, with a market value of $11.3 billion in 2017. Demand is currently outstripping supply by about 2-3,000 tons a year, but that gap will widen as more lithium battery-powered electric vehicles appear on the world’s roads.

Future prospects depend on the government enacting policy and regulation and in initiating incentives for downstream and upstream industry, according to Fadli Rahman, co-author of a 2014 Colorado School of Mines paper on Indonesia’s rare earth potential.

“If the Indonesian government remains passive and unassertive to the viable options, the rare earths will merely remain rare to Indonesians for the foreseeable future,” said Rahman, now state oil company Pertamina’s youngest commissioner.

With estimated reserves of only 13 million tons, the US is waking up to the fact that China’s domination of the increasingly strategic material leaves it vulnerable.

China controls the bulk of the world’s supply of rare earths, vital metals that determine the fortune of global electronic industries. Photo: Weibo via DFIC

At one point, neodymium was even on the Donald Trump administration’s list of tariffs it placed on Chinese imports in 2018 before it was quietly removed, an indication of how important it has become to the US economy.

Last year, China threatened to strengthen controls on rare earth exports to the US, one of the reasons why Washington recently formalized an existing partnership with Australia to develop new sources of critical minerals, including rare earth, cobalt and tungsten.

Australia, with 2.1 million tons, is one of a handful of countries possessing significant rare earth reserves. Others include Brazil (22 million tons), Russia (19 million), Vietnam (11 million) and India (3.1 million).

Vietnam, whose rare earth concentrations are along its northwestern border with China and the South China Sea coast, is reportedly keen on using two relatively common elements, cerium and lanthanum, to develop a clean energy capacity.  

The US began mining rare earth at southern California’s Mountain Pass mine in the 1960s, but since 2010 China has become the dominant player, producing 100,000 tons a year compared with the US output of 43,000 tons over the past two decades. 

An open-pit mine close to the Nevada border known as Mountain Pass was recently saved from a second bankruptcy by MP Materials, a company owned by a Chicago hedge fund. It remains the only rare earth mining and processing facility in the US. 

Most rare earth projects have proven to be uneconomic because of mining costs which can contribute 25-39% of the total expenditure for extracting from hard rock deposits. But Bangka-Belitung’s Monazite has the advantage of being in sand form and therefore does not require crushing and grinding.

In the end, thorium and how to deal with it remains a major impediment to the development of monazite deposits.

Indonesian nuclear advocate Bob Effendi, the local representative for American nuclear reactor design company ThorCon, asserts that safety concerns around the stockpiling of the radioactive waste is a “non-issue.”

But local geologists say it will need to be contained in stainless steel casks and stored in reinforced concrete buildings, possibly on a small uninhabited island, until such time as it is needed as fuel for a long-planned nuclear power station.

For decades now, part of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) mission has been to simply monitor the volume of monazite in Tambang Timah’s tailings, as it has done with similar mine waste around the world. 

In the meantime, nuclear power remains on Indonesia’s agenda, initially set down in a 2007 long-term national development planning law that envisaged an operating plant by 2024. 

In 2014, the Ministry of Mines and Energy regulation listed nuclear in the same category as other sources of renewable energy, but with the proviso that it should only be considered as a final option.

Nuclear power plant smoke stacks in a file image. Photo: Facebook

A second ministerial regulation in 2019 called for the drawing up of a concrete plan for the construction of a nuclear power station, followed by a presidential regulation earlier this year which listed it as a priority program for advanced studies.

Bangka-Belitung governor Erzaldi Rosman Djohan sent a letter to the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Resources and Investment on August 3 supporting the construction of the nuclear plant in the southern Sumatran province.

But the Indonesian citizenry may first have to get over their innate fear of nuclear power, which has so far stymied plans going back to the New Order era for a station to be built on the Muria Peninsula in heavily-populated Central Java.

A member of President Joko Widodo’s National Economic and Industry Committee (KEIN), Effendi argues that a thorium-fuelled plant is not only immune to meltdown but is cheaper to build and produces less waste.

The former oilman also challenges the widely-held perception that Indonesia has limitless sources of energy, noting that coal and gas reserves are not finite and claiming that solar and wind potential is only 15% of what it is claimed to be.

Indonesians are not alone in their fear of anything nuclear-related. In Malaysia, the government faces public opposition to the Lynas Corporation’s facility near Kuantan, which processes rare earth oxides shipped from its Mt Weld concentration plant in West Australia.

With more low-level radioactive waste piling up at the plant, and the issue heading for Malaysia’s High Court, Lynas has now been forced to move the cracking and leeching part of the process to the outback mining center of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. 

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.