Rare Earth Refinery Supports Malaysia’s Car Plans. Er. Yay?

As Malaysia is digesting the latest National Automotive Policy which sets the country on a course towards becoming an EEV hub for South East Asia, out of nowhere, the Australian Lynas Corporation Ltd emerges to ride on the waves.

The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (LAMP) is a highly controversial rare earth refinery plant in Gebeng, Malaysia, which had proceeded to commence operations in spite of fervent protests from citizens which continue until today. Lynas’ Chief Executive Officer, Eric Noyrez, has taken the opportunity to point out that lanthanum, the second largest element produced at the plant, is used in the production of batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles. In an interview with Bernama, Noyrez said, “As the supply chain is here in Malaysia, it will make the country a more attractive place for operating further downstream business.”

As to whether his statement is celebrated by Malaysians, it is highly doubtful; memories are still fresh of another rare earth plant operated by Mitsubishi and, after an uncommonly high occurrence of birth defects and leukemia cases reported in the vicinity of the plant, was quietly shuttered in 1992. Although Noyrez probably has not scored any brownie points for his company, he did inadvertently point out that hybrid and electric cars are not necessarily environmentally-friendly, or at least, a part of the production of such cars is still harmful, albeit in another way. Furthermore, hybrid car still depend partially on petrol and electric cars are most probably charged with power sources that are generated from coal, another fossil fuel.
The question that remains is ‘which is the lesser evil?’ – direct usage of petrol or indirect generation of toxic waste. It is beginning to feel like we’re flogging a dead horse by revisiting this topic (see Why You Shouldn’t Buy A Hybrid Car!) but the reality is that the horse isn’t quite dead yet – not when car purchasers are uninformed and believe that hybrids and electric cars are the saints of all vehicles. But with advertising dollar-laden automakers who keep lauding the ‘green’ points of hybrids and EVs, the smaller voices of bona fide treehuggers are drowned.

Case in point, the leading producer of hybrid vehicles, Toyota, announced that it had passed the six millionth mark of its hybrid vehicle sales in December last year. It claims that it has prevented CO2 emissions of 41 million tons3 and precluded the usage of 15 million kiloliters of petrol. This does sound really good until you do the math for the amount of lanthanum that had to be mined and processed for the 6 million vehicles – each battery requires 10kg to 15kg of the mineral, which equates to 60 million to 90 million kilogrammes of lanthanum.

So, we are back to the question of which is the lesser evil. Perhaps only Mother Nature will be able to reveal the answer eventually. For now, the only green mode of transportation that is for certain is…to walk.

image: periodictable.com

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