While it’s unlikely that many have contemplated the periodic table of elements since high school chemistry class, a short supply of one group of elements has created an unprecedented inflationary environment in a range of industries from lighting and electronics to renewable-energy and defense. And it’s beginning to have an impact on secondary markets, like the pest management industry.
Rare earth elements, or rare earth metals, are a group of 17 elements with unique properties that make them virtually indispensable in the production of a wide range of goods, including television and smartphone screens, wind turbines, lasers and hybrid cars. Five rare earths, yttrium (Y), europium (Eu), terbium (Tb), lanthanum (La) and cerium (Ce), are essential components of fluorescent lighting products, including bulbs used in the manufacture of insect light traps (ILTs). The rising price of these raw materials has led to a significant increase in the manufacturing cost of ILTs — costs that are now starting to be passed on to the pest management industry.
What is at issue? Despite the name, many “rare earth elements” are not exactly as “rare” as you might guess, and are in fact found throughout the world. However, they do not exist widely in sufficient concentrations to make mining and processing commercially viable.
Beginning in the 1980s, with the rise in popularity of green technologies, there was a rapid increase in demand for rare earths followed by a substantial over-supply in the early 1990s. Until the early 1990s, most of the world’s supply of rare earths were mined in the United States. China entered the market in the early 1990s and by the end of the decade, flooded the market with its low-cost production. Chinese competition, coupled with new governmental restrictions on mining in the United States, effectively drove most U.S. companies out of the rare earth mining business.
Today, China has 23 percent of the global rare earth reserves, but produces 95 percent of the world’s supply. Citing concerns about excessive mining that it said was depleting supplies and damaging the environment, China began limiting production and imposing quotas on its exports of rare earths in 2010, effectively limiting global supply. Meanwhile, global consumption of rare earths driven by demand for consumer electronics, renewable-energy technologies and defense technologies reached an all-time high.
What’s the impact? With demand outpacing supply, the price of some rare earths has risen dramatically. According to General Electric, the rate of cost increases for the raw materials vital to fluorescent lighting has been astronomical — in some cases soaring 500 percent to 2,000 percent — and they continue to climb. To put this in perspective, if the rate of inflation on the rare earth element Europium oxide were applied to a $2 cup of coffee, the new cost would be $24.55.
As a result, light manufacturers around the world, including General Electric, Phillips and Sylvania, have increased the prices of some lines of UV and fluorescent lights. In turn, companies like Bradenburg UK Ltd., a manufacturer of professional insect control systems, experienced a doubling in manufacturing costs in 2011, and continued increases into this year. Ultimately, these cost increases are beginning to filter into the pest management industry in the form of higher prices for ILTs and replacement bulbs.
Ehrlich Distribution, Reading, Pa., has seen a range of reactions to the situation from its vendors. According to Gary Girone, purchasing manager for Ehrlich, several vendors have held firm on pricing since the shortage began, but others have increased prices anywhere from 2 percent to 15 percent on ILTs, and up to 8 percent on replacements bulbs. To put it in perspective, Girone notes that over the last several years, the industry has seen minor price increases across the board averaging below 4 percent, so anything above 5 percent marks a significant increase.
What is being done? The United States, the European Union and Japan are working with China to help ensure balanced and fair trade. Responding to an appeal from these governments, the World Trade Organization earlier this year announced plans to investigate China’s export quotas and tariffs on the premise that China may be breaking global commerce rules.
Work is also underway to open, or reopen, mines in the United States, Canada, Australia and Vietnam. And, advances in recycling technologies could release many thousands of tons of materials currently “stored” in old electronics and other products. However, these efforts are not expected to have a global impact for nearly a decade. The situation is certain to remain volatile, and the impact on the pest management industry uncertain in the meantime.
How are rare earth elements used in lighting?
Rare earth phosphors are refined from rare earth ore and are essential in creating white light from the ultraviolet (UV) radiation generated within fluorescent lamps.
Within the fluorescent tubes, cathodes sealed at each end of the tube emit a flow of electrons that reacts with the mercury vapor already inside the bulb. The reaction results in the emission of invisible UV radiation. To convert the UV radiation into visible light, light bulb manufacturers coat the inside of the tubes with powdered phosphors. Phosphors are elements that fluoresce (or glow) when struck by UV rays generating visible light.
Generally, in high-performance fluorescent bulbs, manufacturers use a blend of three rare earth phosphors: yttrium (Y), europium (Eu) and terbium (Tb). The blending of the phosphors has become common in the fluorescent lamps normally used today and is known as “Triband” or “Triphosphors.” Lanthanum (La) and cerium (Ce) also are used in some fluorescent bulbs.
While it is hard to account for exact market usage, estimates suggest that about 50 percent of the rare earth phosphors refined are used in fluorescent light bulbs and no viable substitutes exist today for use in high-performance lighting.
The author is a Milwaukee, Wis.-based freelance writer. She can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the supply and demand of rare earth elements, visit www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41347.pdf for a report called “Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain.”