The blue and purple glass sculpture is rough and hazy. It's Paul Larned's job to make it shine, and cerium is the only element he can use to do that. But the U.S.' supply is running short, causing prices to spike.
Seattle glass artists like Larned are collateral damage in an international struggle over rare earth elements (REEs) that are used to produce numerous high-tech devices. Western Washington is home to the Glass Art Society and about a dozen cold-working shops, where workers like Larned put the finishing touches, such as polishing or etching on pieces.
About 90% of all glass pieces are cold worked using cerium, said artist John Kiley, who created the sculpture Larned is polishing.
Cerium oxide is one of the 17 REEsóbut it really isn't all that rare, with current consumption totaling about 45% of the available supply, according to Karl Gschneidner, a rare earths expert and Iowa State University professor. China produces about 97% of all rare earths, he said.
Nonetheless, in the past few years prices have skyrocketed. His Glassworks, a North Carolina-based glass-working supplier that Larned uses, said its stock of the loose powder form of cerium oxide sold for $10/lb. eight months ago, but is now $66.
"Every day it goes up and we're doing the best we can at stocking as much as we can get," Sales Manager Elise Ramsey said. "We're waiting on China, so we have no idea when things may change."
China's prices began rising in 2007 due to more consumption of rare earths there and new export controls, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Tighter controls of rare earth production and trade came in response to environmental damage caused by mass extracting REEs, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming said last year.