Closer look: China’s cap on rare earth exports hits North American glass industry
A short supply of cerium oxide is beginning to alarm members of the glass and glazing industry. The oxide, one of the 17 elements that compose rare earth minerals, is the most efficient polishing material for glass, says Sandrine Douilhet, director of communications, Innovative Materials Sector, Saint-Gobain, France. Float glass manufacturers also use cerium oxide as a raw material in the glass melting process.
"For decades, glass fabricators have used cerium oxide as the best loose abrasive to give the edge of glass a highly polished, pristine look," says Mike Willard, CEO, Salem Distributing Co., Winston-Salem, N.C. "The shortage of rare earth affects primarily the glass fabricator that bevels and edges glass. However, the costs are sure to be passed along through the supply chain. Edged glass that is installed in decorative displays, malls, commercial buildings, sports venues, beveled mirrors and tabletops are just a few examples of products that are affected by the cerium oxide shortage."
The shortage stems from China's decision to reduce export quotas for rare earth elements by 35 percent for the first half of 2011, according to news reports. China produces 97 percent of the global supply of rare earth that is indispensable in many high-tech arenas, such as military weaponry, advanced batteries, cell phones, magnets, catalytic convertors, coatings, optics, as well as in the glass and glazing industry.
China had already cut quotas by 72 percent for the second half of 2010, making it extremely difficult for U.S. distributors to fulfill orders for their customers, Willard says. Prices have skyrocketed from August 2010, from $3 a pound to approximately $12 a pound at press time, he says.
This market condition has resulted in a significant spike in the cost of glass polishing compounds, and as a result, the cost to produce a glass surface has increased, says Neil Johnson, president, Universal Photonics Inc., a Hicksville, N.Y., manufacturer of polishing compounds. "This directly affects fabricators who polish the edges and bevels of glass, as well as the manufacturers of glass, who use the cerium oxide as a raw material in the glass melting process," he says. "This increase in processing cost ultimately gets passed on through the distribution chain and affects the cost of the end product."
The U.S. has a good supply of rare earths, but a former mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., owned by Molycorp Inc., that used to meet almost all of the world's need for rare earths, shut down in 2002 because of competition from cheaper Chinese suppliers. It resumed operation in December 2010. In January, President Obama signed a defense spending authorization ordering Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure U.S. access to rare earths. A $500 million reconstruction of the Mountain Pass mine, begun in January, will produce rare earths more cheaply by recycling and reusing processing acids, according to a report in The Washington Post. Other mines in Canada and Australia might follow, but it won't be cheap. Rare earth is not rare, but is very difficult to extract, according to the same report. Processing raw ore into rare earth is an intensive operation that has been associated with radioactive water spills.
"2012 should open more sources from North America and Australia, but nothing can prevent China from increasing supply at that time, and thus reducing prices to put new suppliers out of business and continuing the cycle," says Michael Spellman, president, IGE Solutions, Jupiter, Fla. "So, we are in a big mess, as the prices are out of control on powdered cerium oxide and supply is unknown. Besides powdered cerium, cerium wheels are also affected, and going up in a fashion never seen before in glass fabrication supplies."
"We still have enough cerium, but the prices have more than doubled since mid-2010," reports Drew Mayberry, president, Lenoir Mirror, Lenoir, N.C.
Dan Day, purchasing manager, Gardner Glass, North Wilkesboro, N.C., agrees. "The cost [of cerium oxide] has doubled in the last 90 days, and from what I'm told, we could very easily see another price increase that could double today's levels by April. That's what the distributors are telling me."
Gardner Glass, a large fabricator and mirror manufacturer, has the capability to bevel more than 2 million inches a week, and uses an average 75 pounds of cerium oxide a day. "[Today], we're beveling 750,000 inches a week," Day says. "We use Bovone for straight-line beveling and Bando pattern beveling, which both use cerium oxide."
What you can do
As a manufacturer of polishing compounds, Universal Photonics is taking several steps to counter this issue, Johnson says. "We are broadening the variety of compounds that can be utilized, expanding the number of options for fabricators. Currently, 150-plus types are available," he says. "We are developing alternative polishing materials that do not depend upon rare earth, and are manufacturing polishing wheels and drums that require only water to polish glass edges." These types of alternatives can relieve the pressure on fabricators, and will reduce the dependence upon classic rare earth materials for polishing applications, he says. "It appears that the rare earth shortage will continue for at least 12-18 months before alternate sources outside China are developed, and it is also likely that the shortage will continue to drive costs up for at least the same period."
As a glass and glazing professional, in the short term, think about conserving cerium oxide, Mayberry advises, and in the long-term, look for alternatives. "The supply will remain constrained for another six months; after that, we will need to find another alternative."
Willard agrees. Every user of cerium oxide needs to review their procedures and use it wisely, he says. "This includes using a Baume gauge to measure the specific gravity of the cerium oxide slurry. The specific gravity increases as the cerium oxide concentration increases. The higher the Baume, the more cerium is being used. Every cerium product recommends being run at a specific Baume, and care must be taken to run it at that level to avoid overconsumption."
The best way to save cerium oxide is to do a superior job with the upstream grinding steps, Willard says. "The better the finish going into the polishing section, the less the slurry concentration needs to be, and the less cerium oxide gets carried on the glass to the washers," he explains. "Also, it pays to use premium felt wheels that deliver the most polishing power at the lowest slurry concentration. Premium felt wheels are much cheaper than cerium and ultimately provide a better finish than lesser quality felts."