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Something about Rare Earth Elements…

REE – Rare Earth Elements and their Uses

The demand for rare earth elements is rising rapidly but their occurrence in minable deposits is very limited.

What Are Rare Earth Elements (REEs)?

Rare earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table (see image at

REE Periodic Table: The Rare Earth Elements are the 15 lanthanide series elements, plus yttrium. Scandium is found in most rare earth element deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth element. Image by Geology.com.

right). The group consists of yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium). Scandium is found in most rare earth element deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth element.

The rare earth elements are all metals and the group is often referred to as the “rare earth metals”. These metals have many similar properties and that often causes them to be found together in geologic deposits.

Some researchers do not consider scandium to be a rare earth element, however the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry includes scandium in their rare earth element definition.

Uses of Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day such as: computer memory, DVD’s, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, car catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting and much more.

During the past twenty years there has been an explosion in demand for many items that require rare earth metals. Twenty years ago there were very few cell phones in use but the number has risen to over 5 billion in use today. The usage of computers and DVDs has grown almost as fast as cell phones.

Many rechargeable batteries are made with rare earth compounds. Demand for the batteries is being driven by demand for portable electronic devices such as cell phones, readers, computers and cameras.

Several pounds of rare earth compounds are in batteries that power electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles. As concerns for energy independence, climate changeand other issues drive the sale of electric vehicles the demand for batteries made with rare earth compounds will climb even faster.

Rare earths are used as catalysts, phosphors and polishing compounds. These are used for air pollution control, illuminated screens on electronic devices and optical-quality glass. All of these products are expected to experience rising demand.

Other substances can be substituted for rare earth elements in their most important uses, however, these substitutes are usually much less effective and have a higher cost.

Did You Know? Tiny amounts of rare earth metals are used in most small electronic devices. These devices have a short life-span and REE recycling is infrequently done. Billions are thrown away each year. Image © Bakaleev Aleksey, iStockphoto.

Critical Defense Uses of Rare Earth Elements

Rare earth elements play an essential role in our national defense. In the Gulf Wars, night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons and other defense technology gave the United States military a tremendous advantage. Rare earth metals are key ingredients for making the very hard alloys used to make armored vehicles and projectiles that shatter upon impact in thousands of sharp fragments.

Substitutes can be used for rare earth elements in some defense applications, however, those subsitutes are not as effective and that will diminish military superiority.

Are These Elements Really “Rare”?

Rare earth elements are not as “rare” as their name implies. Thulium and lutetium are the two least abundant rare earth elements – but they each have an average crustal abundance that is nearly 200 times greater than the crustal abundance of gold (1). However, these metals are very difficult to mine because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.

The most abundant rare earth elements are cerium, yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium (2). They have average crustal abundances that are similar to commonly used industrial metals such as chromium, nickel, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten and lead (1). Again, they are rarely found in extractable concentrations.

The rare earth elements are often subdivided into "Heavy Rare Earths" and "Light Rare Earths". Lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium and samarium are the "light rare earths". Yttrium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium are the "heavy rare earths". Although yttrium is lighter than the light rare earth elements, it is included in the heavy rare earth group because of its chemical and physical associations with heavy rare earths in natural deposits.

Rare Earth Element Mine Production and Trade 

Significant amounts of rare earth elements are produced in only a few countries. China is the dominant producer of rare earth elements and is believed to be responsible for over 95% of the world mine production on a rare earth oxide equivalent basis. Other countries with notable production in 2009 were: BrazilIndiaKyrgyzstan andMalaysia. Minor production may have occurred in Indonesia, Commonwealth of Independent States, NigeriaNorth Korea andVietnam (3). The United States Geological Survey reports that significant exploration and new mining activity is expected fromCanada and Australia (3).

China’s World Production Dominance

China became the world’s dominant producer of rare earth elements in the early 1990s, when production at the Mountain Pass mine in California began to decline. China’s dominance increased rapidly and in 2000 China accounted for about 90% of world rare earth production. China sold rare earths at such low prices that the Mountain Pass mine and others throughout the world were unable to compete.

In early 2010 China accounted for over 95% of the world’s rare earth production. China is also the dominant consumer of rare earth elements, used mainly in manufacturing electronics products for domestic and export markets. Japan and the United States are the second and third largest consumers of rare earth materials.

In 2010 China announced that they would significantly restrict their rare earth exports to ensure a supply for domestic manufacturing. This announcement triggered some panic buying and rare earth prices shot up to record high levels.

Chinese companies have also been seeking rare earth properties in other countries. For example: in 2009 China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company bought a majority stake in Lynas Corporation, an Australian company that has one of the highest outputs of rare earth elements outside of China.

These rare-earth oxides are used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are eroding (4). Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Image by Peggy Greb, USDA image gallery.

The Dangers of a Dominant World Producer

Supply and demand normally determine the market price of a commodity. As supplies shrink prices go up. As prices go higher those who control the supply are tempted to sell and entrepreneurs start developing new sources of supply.

With rare earth elements the time between an entrepreneur’s decision to acquire a property and the start of production can be several years or longer. There is no quick way to increase supply.

If a single country controls almost all of the production and makes a firm decision not to export then the entire supply of a commodity can be quickly cut off. That is a dangerous situation when new sources of supply take so long to develop.

World Rare Earth Mineral Resources

“Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but discovered minable concentrations are less common than for

Did You Know? Most of the scandium used in the United States goes into aluminum-alloy baseball bats and other sports equipment (3). Scandium is also used in semiconductors and specialty lighting. Image © Dori OConnell, iStockphoto.

most other ores. U.S. and world resources are contained primarily in bastnäsite and monazite. Bastnäsite deposits in China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world’s rare-earth economic resources, while monazite deposits in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States constitute the second largest segment. Apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phosphorites, rare-earth-bearing (ion adsorption) clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime make up most of the remaining resources. Undiscovered resources are thought to be very large relative to expected demand.” Quoted from the United States Geological Survey’s Mineral Commodity Summary (2).

Large undeveloped deposits of rare earth minerals are known to occur in China. Significant deposits are also known in Australia. Exploration is identifying new deposits in Canada and the United States.

Did You Know? Prices for rare earth materials have been rising for the past decade. Supplies are limited and demand is growing rapidly. China produces over 95% of the supply. Deposits in Australia, Canada and the United States are being explored.

Rare Earth Element Outlook

“Rare-earth use in automotive pollution control catalysts, permanent magnets, and rechargeable batteries are expected to continue to increase as future demand for conventional and hybrid automobiles, computers, electronics, and portable equipment grows. Rare-earth markets are expected to require greater amounts of higher purity mixed and separated products to meet the demand. Demand for cerium and neodymium for use in automotive catalytic converters and catalysts for petroleum refining was expected to expand by 6% to 8% per year for the next 5 years if the world economy remains strong. 

Rare-earth magnet demand was expected to increase by 10% to 16% per year through 2012, increasing to 45,000 t to 50,000 t by 2012 (Kingsnorth, 2008). Future growth was expected for rare earths in rechargeable NiMH batteries, especially those used in hybrid vehicles, increasing to 10,000 t to 20,000 t REO by 2012. NiMH demand was also expected to increase (moderated by increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries) with increased use in portable equipment, such as camcorders, cellular telephones, compact disk players, digital cameras, digital video disk players, laptop computers, and MPEG audio-layer-3 players. 

In 2009, China produced over 95% of the world supply of rare earth element ores. The USGS Mineral Commodity Summary (2) reported production tonnages for India, Brazil, Malaysia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Rare earth element resources are known to exist in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Malawi and Sri Lanka, however, production from those countries was insignificant during 2009.

Increased rare earth use was expected in fiber optics, medical applications that include dental and surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, medical contrast agents, medical isotopes, and positron emission tomography scintillation detectors. Future growth potential was projected for rare-earth alloys employed in magnetic refrigeration (Gschneidner and Pecharsky, 2008).” Quoted from the United States Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook (3).

References cited in the USGS Minerals Yearbook (3):

Kingsnorth, Dudley, 2008, Rare earths supply – Alternatives to China: Littleton, CO, Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration Inc. meeting and exhibit, Salt Lake City, UT, February 26, 2009, Presentation, 25 pages.

Gschneidner, Karl, Jr., and Pecharsky, Vitalij, 2008, Magnetic refrigeration/heat engines: Littleton, CO, Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration Inc. meeting and exhibit, Salt Lake City, UT, February 26, 2009, Presentation, 20 pages.

Did You Know? Rare earth magnets are used in wind turbines. Some large turbines require two TONS of rare earth magnets. These magnets are very strong and make the turbines highly efficient. Rare earth magnets are used in turbines and generators in many alternative energy applications.

 

Did You Know? Every hybrid-electric and electric vehicle has a large battery. Each battery is made using several pounds of rare earth compounds. The use of electric vehicles is expected to increase rapidly, driven by energy independence, climate change and other concerns. This will increase the demand for rare earth materials. Image © Mark Stay, iStockphoto.

Rare Earth Elements Principal Sources Map: This map shows the country of origin for rare earths imported into the United States during 2008. China, the dominant miner of rare earth minerals is the primary source. Austria, France, Japan and Russia do not have notable mine production of rare earth minerals, however, they are a source of unprocessed ores, refined metals, alloys or rare earth compounds. NOTE: The United States is the second largest importer of rare earth elements. Japan is the largest importer, needing rare earth materials to supply its active electronics and auto industries. Image by the United States Geological Survey (3).

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