Rare Earth Metals

You may not realize it, but the average American has become highly dependent on Rare Earth Metals for many aspects of their daily life.  However, the future availability of these metals may be at risk due to a variety of factors including consumption rates of an increasing global middle class as well as geopolitics.

Rare earth elements are all metals and are a group of seventeen chemical elements consisting 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.  Counter to their name, Rare earth metals are not so rare in the environment.  They were given their name because the metals are very difficult to mine economically since it rare to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.

Consumers depend on rare earth metals (REMs) for products used everyday including smart phones, health care products, fluorescent lighting, computer memory, DVD's, rechargeable batteries, car catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting, and much more.  The demand for REMs has skyrocketed with technological advances including electric vehicles and electronics.  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.  Renewable energy projects including wind turbines are highly dependent on REMs for their magnets.   Some large turbines require two tons of rare earth magnets.  The Department of Defense is also highly dependent on REMs for technologies including night-vision goggles, alloys for armored vehicles, projectiles and precision-guided weapons.  Examples include:

  • Lanthanum-night vision goggles
  • Neodymium-laser range finders, guidance systems and communications
  • Europium-fluorescents and phosphors in lamps and monitors
  • Erbium-amplifiers in fiber-optic data transmission
  • Samarium- magnets for high temperatures & precision guided weapons

 

The World is Dependent on China

China is the dominant producer and user 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.  It now consumes over 65% of global output.  In 2010, China decided to reduce exports by 40%, which had an initial price spike impact.  However, it also served to reduce demand to the high costs, which resulted in China increasing exports.  In the United States, Molycorp is opening up the Mountain Pass mine in California to provide additional REM resources.

 

For further information see:  http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/rare_earths/