Seattle glass artists caught in “rare earth“ bind

The blue and purple glass sculpture is rough and hazy.
It is Paul Larned“s job to make it shine, and cerium is the only element he can use to do that. But the US“ supply is running short, causing p…

The blue and purple glass sculpture is rough and hazy. It is Paul Larned“s job to make it shine, and cerium is the only element he can use to do that. But the US“ supply is running short, causing prices to spike. Seattle glass artists such as Larned are collateral damage in an international struggle over rare earths“, chemical elements 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 such as 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 rare-earth elements, but it is not all that rare. Current consumption totals 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 glassworking supplier that Larned uses, sold its stock of the loose powder form of cerium oxide for USD 10 per pound eight months ago. The same amount is now USD 66. China“s prices began rising in 2007 due to more consumption of rare earths there and new export controls. Tighter controls of rare-earth production and trade came in response to environmental damage caused by mass-extracting rare earths. The Mountain Pass rare-earth mine in California reopened in response to rising prices, but experts do not believe it will be able to make up for Chinese cutbacks. For glassworkers, the shortage is causing more problems than just rising prices. 3M has stopped making a cerium polishing belt – a tool the artists have come to depend on. A limited supply of the belts hangs in Larned“s basement workshop. When those are gone, he will have to go back to the old method of putting cerium powder on a felt belt, he said. That“s not only far more expensive than it used to be, but also takes 10 times longer and creates a hurricane“ of powder in his workroom. When the belts came on the market a few years ago, “it was like a miracle. You work for 10 minutes and it would actually shine,” he said. Kiley, who also is the glass director for the Schack Art Center in Everett, has spent the past few years working on a series of highly polished pieces. With the belt, finishing the edges of his pieces takes about 20 minutes, Kiley said, but with the slurry method, that same work could take several hours. “If you“re holding on to a 30-pound piece of glass…that adds up pretty quickly,” he said. His Glassworks and other suppliers have sold out their stock of the 3M belts and are desperately scooping up any cerium-related products, like cerium hand pads and polishing disks. The full impact of the shortage hasn“t hit the art world yet, Ramsey said, but without an export policy change in China, artists might have to move to sandblasting or acid etching, methods that leave a frosted look rather than a polished shine. Cork, a cerium alternative used years ago, leaves a haze, Larned said. Dale Chihuly, a giant in the glass world whose workshop is based in the Puget Sound area, uses cerium for some of his pieces, said Janet Makela, a spokeswoman for the studio. The studio could use alternatives to cerium if the country“s supply ran low, she said. The majority of Chihuly“s work does not require cold working, where cerium is “the tool of the trade,” Kiley said. “The right equipment does make a difference,” Larned said of the cold-working business, as he cleaned up his basement workshop and brushed the cerium powder off his hands. Last year he had 10 pounds of powder but sold it because he had the 3M belts, he said. “Now I wish I hadn“t.”