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Rare Earth Elements (REE)

Rare Earth Elements (REE)

What Are They?

Seventeen chemical elements collectively referred to as rare earth elements can be found in the periodic table.

REE

Thulium, ytterbium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, lutetium, and cerium are the 15 lanthanide elements that make up the group. Most rare earth element deposits contain scandium, which is occasionally categorized as a rare earth element. The definition of a rare earth element by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry includes scandium.

Since all of the elements in the rare earth element group are metals, they are frequently referred to as "rare earth metals." Due to their numerous shared characteristics, these metals are frequently found in geologic deposits together. Because many of them are usually sold as oxide compounds, they are sometimes known as "rare earth oxides".

Uses for Elements of Rare Earth

Numerous everyday items, including computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting, and much more, contain rare earth metals or alloys containing them.

The demand for numerous products that use rare earth elements has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. Almost 5 billion people now own a mobile device, compared to very few people who did so twenty years ago. Rare earth elements have become more and more common in computers almost as quickly as in cell phones.

Rare earth elements are used in the production of many rechargeable batteries. The need for portable electronic gadgets like cameras, cell phones, readers, and pocket computers is driving the need for batteries.

Every electric vehicle and hybrid electric vehicle is powered by batteries that include many pounds of rare earth compounds. The market for rare earth compound batteries will grow even more as sales of electric and hybrid vehicles are driven by worries about energy independence, climate change, and other challenges.

Rare earths are employed as polishing agents, phosphors, and catalysts. They are employed in the reduction of air pollution, the polishing of optical-quality glass, and the illumination of electronic device screens. It is anticipated that demand for each of these products will increase.

In their most crucial applications, other materials can replace rare earth elements; however, these alternatives are typically less efficient and more expensive.

Cerium oxide was a very popular lapidary polish from the 1950s until the early 2000s. It was really efficient and reasonably priced. The usage of cerium oxide in rock tumbling and the lapidary arts has virtually completely disappeared due to recent price rises. It has been replaced by other forms of polish, such as titanium oxide and aluminum oxide.

Crucial Defense Applications

The protection of our country depends heavily on rare earth elements. Precision-guided weaponry, batteries, GPS systems, night-vision goggles, and other defense technologies are used by the military. The military of the United States benefits greatly from these. The extremely hard alloys employed in armored cars and impact-fracturing projectiles are primarily made of rare earth metals.

In certain defensive applications, alternatives for rare earth elements can be employed; however, they are typically less effective, which reduces military dominance. The accompanying table provides an overview of some applications for rare earth elements.

Catalysts74%
Ceramics and glass10%
Polish4%
Alloys6%
Other6%


Which Elements Are Actually "Rare"?

Elements classified as rare earth are not as "rare" as their name suggests. The two rare earth elements with the lowest average crustal abundances are lutetium and thulium, both of which are almost 200 times more plentiful than the crustal abundance of gold. However, because it is uncommon to discover these metals in quantities high enough for profitable extraction, mining them is highly challenging.

Cerium, yttrium, lanthanum, and neodymium are the rare earth elements that are most prevalent. Comparable to widely used industrial metals including chromium, nickel, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, and lead, they have average crustal abundances. Once more, extractable concentrations of these are not often encountered.

The Production and Trade History of Rare Earths Before 1965

Rare earth elements were not in high demand before 1965. The majority of the world's supply at the time came from placer deposits in Brazil and India. South Africa emerged as the world's top producer of monazite deposits containing rare earth elements throughout the 1950s. At that time, a Precambrian carbonatite was being used in the Mountain Pass Mine in California to produce trace quantities of rare earth oxides.

Color Television Sparks Interest

When the first color television sets hit the market in the middle of the 1960s, demand for rare earth elements began to soar. The substance europium was necessary to create the color pictures. Bastnasite, which contained 0.1% europium, was the starting material used by the Mountain Pass Mine to produce europium. Thanks to this endeavor, the United States emerged as the world's top producer of rare earth elements, with the Mountain Pass Mine being the world's largest producer.

China Joins the Industry

In the early 1980s, China started to generate significant volumes of rare earth oxides, and by the early 1990s, it was the world's top producer. China gradually tightened its grip on the global market for rare earth oxides during the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s. Their pricing for rare earths was so cheap that several other mines throughout the world, like Mountain Pass Mine, could not compete and had to shut down.

Demand for Consumer Electronics and Defense

As rare earth metals were incorporated into a wide range of military, aviation, industrial, and consumer electronics applications, demand for them was soaring globally at the same time. China took advantage of its strong position to start limiting shipments and to let the price of rare earth oxides reach all-time highs.

Japan Is the Biggest User of Rare Earth Elements

China is not only the world's biggest producer but also the biggest user of rare earth elements. Rare earth elements are mostly used in the production of electronics for both home and international markets. The second and third-biggest users of rare earth elements are the US and Japan. China may be protecting its value-added manufacturing industry by refusing to sell rare earths.

The Pinnacle of Production Dominance in China?

Prices for various rare earth oxides have increased by over 500% in a short period, and it is possible that Chinese dominance peaked in 2010 when they accounted for over 95% of the global production of rare earths. For miners and users of rare earth elements worldwide, that was a wake-up call. Mining corporations started to reassess previous rare earth possibilities and look for new ones in the US, Australia, Canada, and other nations.

Three actions were taken by manufacturers as a result of high prices: 1) they looked for ways to lower the number of rare earth elements required to make each product; 2) they looked for substitute materials for rare earth elements; and 3) they created new products that did not require rare earth elements.

As a consequence of this endeavor, light-emitting diode technology has replaced rare earth lighting goods, and some types of magnets now need less rare earth elements. The average amount of rare earths used in each manufactured product has declined in the US, but consumers are requesting more items made with rare earth elements. Higher consumption is the outcome.

China Purchasing Resources From Other Countries

Chinese businesses have started buying rare earth minerals elsewhere. One of the largest producers of rare earth elements outside of China, Lynas Corporation is an Australian corporation that China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Corporation acquired a controlling share in 2009. They also bought Zambia's Baluba Mine.

Production of Rare Earth Not in China

2011 saw the start of rare earth oxide production from Australian mines. In 2012 and 2013, their contribution to global output ranged from 2% to 3%. The Mountain Pass Mine resumed production in 2012, and in 2013, US output accounted for around 4% of global production of rare earth elements. Brazil, Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam all maintained or expanded their production.

Significant resources were found outside of China, according to new mineral resource evaluations carried out by the US Geological Survey. Despite being the world leader in the production of rare earths, China only has roughly 36% of the global deposits. Now that China isn't selling rare earth commodities for less than what it costs to manufacture them, this gives other nations a chance to grow into significant producers.

Perils of a Primitive Global Manufacturer

Typically, supply and demand dictate a commodity's market price. Prices increase when supply decreases. Those in charge of supply are enticed to sell as prices rise. Mining corporations want to create new supply sources because they view high pricing as an opportunity.

When it comes to rare earth elements, it might take a few years or more for a mining corporation to decide to buy a property and begin production. Opening a new mining property is not a quick process.

A commodity's entire supply can be abruptly shut off if one nation decides to retain control over nearly all production and refuses to export. Given how long it takes for new supply sources to emerge, that is a risky scenario.

China severely curtailed its shipments of rare earth elements in 2010. This was done for both environmental and domestic industry purposes to guarantee a supply of rare earths. Panic purchasing resulted from China's change, and the price of several rare earths skyrocketed. Furthermore, China's trade restrictions about rare earths have been the subject of complaints from the United States, the European Union, and Japan to the World Trade Organization.

Global Resources for Rare Earth Minerals

In comparison to most other ores, rare earths are rather numerous in the Earth's crust, although they are less prevalent in found minable quantities. Montana and monazite comprise the majority of the world's and the United States' resources. The majority of the world's rare-earth commercial resources are found in bastnäsite deposits in China and the US, with monazite deposits found in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the US making up the second-largest portion.

The majority of the remaining resources are composed of apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phosphorites, rare-earth-bearing (ion adsorption) clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime. The amount of untapped resources is estimated to be quite high compared to demand. taken from the Mineral Commodity Summary published by the US Geological Survey.

Outlook for Rare Earth Elements

Over the next ten years, there will likely be a significant increase in the demand for catalysts, consumer electronics, cars, and energy-efficient lighting worldwide. Both the demand for rechargeable batteries and rare earth magnets are predicted to rise. It is anticipated that advancements in medical technology will lead to a rise in the utilization of surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, and scintillation detectors for positron emission tomography.

Since rare earth elements are vital to each of these sectors, there should be a continued strong demand for them.