Cerium, Europium, Terbium, Yttrium. These are rare-earth elements (REE), part of a group of 17 metals that are used in a variety of products such as computers, flat screens, and lighting. With so many electronics being produced today, demand for these is more competitive than ever. While lighting accounts for less than 10 percent of their use, they are an absolute necessity in the triphosphor coating process of all T8, T5, delux T12, and compact fluorescent pin- and self-ballasted lamps. According to Sylvania in an Aug. 17, 2011, webcast, rare-earth metal costs have risen dramatically in the past 18 months. For example, the cost of cerium oxide has risen 3,530 percent since January 2010.
What is contributing to this cost? Prior to 2002, there were a few sources for the materials around the globe, including the Mountain Pass Deposit in California. But since then, China has moved to control 95 percent of the world's rare-earth production and has, in effect, forced other mines out of business due to the low production costs of China's mines. That is changing, as the Chinese government is now imposing new taxes and tariffs, enforcing new mining rules and regulations, and administering export quotas to regulate the amount of rare-earth materials available on the global market. According to Sylvania webcast presenter Paula Ziegenbein, in 2005 China exported 65.5 tons of rare-earth materials. In 2010, that amount dropped to 50 tons, and in 2009, 30 tons.
Because lighting manufacturers use such a small percentage of the overall available material, they are at a competitive disadvantage. Congress has recognized the impact on the global supply chain and is moving forward with several pieces of legislation, such as Senate bill S1113, that would initiate the reopening of previously closed U.S. mines.
Lamp manufacturers such as Sylvania are also taking several steps to do what they can to minimize the effects of any increase in cost. Although the company is contracting with multiple suppliers, the cost increase does remain a real issue. According to Ziegenbein, Sylvania is also investigating the optimization of the powder weight, looking into REE substitutes, and looking into ways that it might be able to reclaim and recycle REE materials from spent lamps. Until the situation sorts itself out, Sylvania expects that fluorescent lamp prices will be subject to change every 30 days.