Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are insulated in the fabric of modern life, have transformed industries and are essential to products with significant growth potential in markets associated with the electronics and technology industries, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction. The first rare-earth element was discovered in 1792 by Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin and the others were identified and isolated from then with the final one discovered in 1945.
REEs are used broadly ranging inter alia in pacemakers, camera and telescope lenses, refining crude oil and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning systems. As a key component in optics, re-chargeable batteries and the magnets in computer hard drives, laptops and electric motors, rare earths play a fundamental role in hybrid motor vehicles. These cars are fuel efficient and major contributors to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rare earths are also used in satellites, lasers and other hi-tech equipment.
The diverse nuclear, chemical, metallurgical, catalytic, electrical, magnetic, and optical properties of the REEs have led to an ever increasing variety of applications and demands. REEs are critical and strategic components in many high-tech developments. As producers of different wavelength of light, they produce specific color used in anti-counterfeiting of bank notes.
REEs are also key products in the electronics market, including mobile phones, personal organisers, laptop computers and liquid-crystal display (LCD) television screens.
Rare Earth Elements
REEs are a group of specialty metals with unique physical, chemical and light-emitting properties that are seeing dramatic increases in demand, owing to their technological applications. The unique properties of REEs make them critical materials to many emerging technologies which are becoming increasingly commonplace in today’s society. In many respects, REEs applications are strongly associated with energy; its efficient use, and its efficient generation. In a world with an ever-increasing demand for clean and efficient technologies, REEs are set to play a pivotal role.
Supply of REEs is both politically and technically complex. Global consumption of REEs has been increasing significantly while supply of REEs has tightened dramatically. For the last 15 years, China has dominated global supply, but owing to the importance of REE availability to internal industries, China is prioritizing its domestic markets through steadily increasing export taxes on REEs in tandem with reducing export quotas (Beijing in 2011 imposed an export quota of 30,184 metric tonnes, marginally reduced from 30,258 metric tonnes in 2010). As a result, REEs are in short supply, and with demand forecast to progressively increase, the world drastically needs new suppliers of REEs.
The REE group is considered depending on classification to include the 15 Lanthanide Elements (atomic periodic table numbers ranging from 57-71): lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm, does not occur naturally), neodymium (Nd), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and lutetium (Lu). The elements yttrium (Y) and scandium (Sc) are also included as they have similar chemical properties, making 17 REEs in total (for the exhaustive list refer to REEs Handbook.)
As the future supply and demand forecasts for REEs begin to emerge, it is clear that some REEs with high industry dependence will remain under supply pressure for many years to come. These are now referred to as ‘Critical’ rare earths (CRE’s) by the United States of America Department of Energy and given their uncertain future supplies, ranked as the mineral raw materials of critical concern by the European Union and United States Geological Survey (USGS), owing to their importance to clean energy technologies, supply risk and importance to advance industrial economies. The CREs include neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, and yttrium.
Most people are now familiar with hybrid vehicles, rechargeable batteries, wind turbines (renewable energy) mobile (cell) phones, flat screen display panels, compact fluorescent light bulbs, laptop computers, disk drives and catalytic converters, but it is not widely known that these products, inter alia, are dependent on the unique properties of REEs.
REEs make the world’s strongest permanent magnets. These magnets are utilized in electric motors to produce greater power and torque, and owing to the power of the magnets, less material is required such that engines can be considerably smaller and lighter in weight. Electric motors that utilize REEs are a key component of hybrid vehicles, which will become increasingly abundant on roads throughout the world in years to come. The powerful REE magnets also permit the miniaturisation of hard disk drives used in many electrical devices. Neodymium and praseodymium are the REEs used in high-powered magnets, but dysprosium and terbium are also used in small amounts to allow magnets to retain their properties to higher temperatures. Magnets are the main application driving REE demand, by value.
Most energy efficient lighting (compact fluorescent lamps) and display panels (light-emitting diodes (LEDS), Plasma, LCDs) require the use of REEs as phosphors. Europium, terbium, and yttrium are the main REEs used in these applications. All applications are considered as strong growth sectors, leading to increasing demand for europium, terbium and yttrium. The use of REEs as phosphors is the second main demand driver for REEs by value.
Many electronic products are powered by rechargeable batteries. One of the most effective rechargeable batteries is the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery that is used in hybrid cars and many other electronic products. A mixed rare earth metal alloy is used as the anode in the NiMH battery, and makes up about 26% of the battery’s weight. Lanthanum is the main REE used in the NiMH battery.
A catalytic converter is a device fitted to the exhaust system of a combustion engine that reduces the toxicity of emissions. Such devices have been fitted to many automobiles in North America since the 1970s. Recent technological advances have seen the emergence of the three-way catalytic converter. This device reduces toxic nitrogen oxides to harmless nitrogen and oxygen, oxidizes toxic carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and additionally oxidizes unburnt hydrocarbons. Cerium is the REE used in catalytic converters, where it forms part of the catalyst. Tighter vehicle emission laws are being introduced throughout the world, and it was predicted that by the year 2010, 95% of all cars manufactured will have catalytic converters.
REEs are also used in another form of catalyst, commonly referred to as a fluid-cracking catalyst. These are being used increasingly in the oil industry as they enhance the efficiency of separating various fractions from oil during the refining process. Lanthanum is the main REE used in fluid cracking catalysts.
The use of REEs in magnets, rechargeable batteries and catalysts accounts for over 60% of REE consumption with demand expected to increase significantly in all these areas.
Few Rare Earth Deposits Worldwide
To meet the forecast increase in demand of rare earth metals it is becoming increasingly critical to develop new rare earth metal mines. Even if most countries and companies around the world were happy with one country, China, supplying nearly all of an increasingly vital resource, it is becoming apparent that China itself may not be able to meet rare earth oxide (REO) demand. According to the USGS, production of rare earth oxides (REOs) peaked in 2006. The Chinese government has become increasingly aware of the environmental and social damage of the artisanal mining of the heavy rare earth metal clays and is considering export quotas for heavy rare earth metals to try and discourage extensive mining of these deposits.
Despite the obvious need for more rare earth mines around the world there are in fact very few known projects. Mining database, Intierra, lists only around 200 rare earth mine projects, of which only about 20 are at an advanced stage with some kind of resource listed. The majority of these advanced stage deposits are in Canada, Greenland, U.S. (including plans to restart Mountain Pass), parts of southern Africa (Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania) and Australia.
Rare Earth and future finds
Despite their name the rare earth metals are not rare within the earth’s crust (but are rarely concentrated). The most common rare earth metals (lanthanum to neodymium) have a similar crustal abundance to the less common base metals (zinc, copper, nickel and tin) and even the rarer middle and heavy rare earth metals are more common than silver. They are certainly nowhere near as rare as the precious metals, such as gold and the platinum group elements.
Despite the relative crustal abundance of rare earths, due to their chemical properties they infrequently form discreet deposits, as occurs with metals such as gold and platinum, and are never found as native metals (like the base and precious metals). The infrequency with which rare earth metals form enriched deposits means that they were long undiscovered, less uses were developed, demand was lower and hence there was less exploration for rare earth deposits. Ultimately all of this means there are currently very few rare earth deposits that have been discovered and defined, when compared to the base and precious metals. In general rare earth oxides are found with other incompatible elements, such as titanium, phosphorus, niobium, barium, potassium, sodium, rubidium, strontium, thorium, uranium and fluorine; and frequently are associated with alkaline magmas. Rare earth deposits are known to form in about eight to ten different geological environments.
Rare earth metals are also found as a potential by-product in a number of other types deposits including iron oxide copper gold (IOCG) deposits, the most famous of which is Olympic Dam, Australia; alkaline felsic magmatic deposits such as the Kola Peninsula, Russia and the Brockman, Australia; pegmatites including some found in the Northern Territory of Australia; hydrothermal quartz deposits, such as at Karonge, Burundi; fluorite veins, such as at Naboomspruit, South Africa; and skarns as typified by the Mary Kathleen deposit, Australia.
The world needs new rare earth mines, outside China, to meet technological demand. Rare earth metals are crucial for high technology applications and for a more environmentally sustainable global economy. Rare earth oxide demand is currently, and likely to continue, to be dominated by magnet demand, particularly as to the use of electric vehicles and wind turbines increases.
China currently supplies over 95% (ex-premier of the country in 1997 commented: “China would be for rare earth metals what the Middle East was to oil“) of REOs, but exports are rapidly being restricted due to internal demand and supply reduction caused by poor environmental practices. It is therefore critical that rare earth mine capacity is rapidly developed outside of China. Australia, Canada, USA and South Africa are the few countries that has both economic rare earth oxide deposits and the technical and financial mining knowledge to exploit the deposits key for high technology manufacturing markets such as those of Japan and increasingly China.
World demand for rare earths (as REOs) in 2012 was approximately 110,000 tonnes, having a value of approximately U.S. $11 billion. China accounting for about 70% of total demand and the remainder of demand was split between Japan, U.S. and Europe.
Rare earth oxides are used in a wide range of applications with total global demand growth rates of approximately 8% to 10% per year with some end use applications growing at twice that level. Demand for REOs products is driven by advances in green and energy efficient technologies, by high technology and consumer electronic applications and in general by increases in global GDP. Despite the reductions in demand during the 2007 to 2009 global financial crisis, rare earths demand has proven resilient and has now returned to about the levels prior to the financial crisis.
In 2011 China supplied about 95% of the total rare earth oxide products consumed globally, albeit it only has a third of the world’s deposits. Starting in 2006, China started limiting the volume of REO products that Chinese producers could export. In recent years the Chinese have been steadily reducing export quotas, and increasing export taxes, in recognition that REOs represent a very strategic metal group (Beijing in 2011 imposed an export quota of 30,184 metric tonnes, marginally reduced from 30,258 metric tonnes in 2010 and scrapped the quotas in late 2014 after losing a WTO case). As with many raw materials, the REE landscape is at a point of radical change. China is turning its priority from supplying the world, to supplying the burgeoning demand from internal industries that are dependent on REE availability.
As a result of these export quotas and strong demand for REOs products both in and outside of China, supply and demand has been tightly balanced. Over the next couple of years a few new, non-Chinese explorers, developers and producers, such as African Compass International (ACI) Mining, a ACI Group Company, one of the emerging mining firms in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), will bring new capacity onto the market.
By 2016 global consumption of REEs is forecast to increase by 55% from current levels, driven by significant market growth for many applications that rely on REEs. As a result the world urgently needs new, long-term stable suppliers of REEs to meet the strong demand. Given that the major applications for REEs are products and devices that offer environmental benefits, the need to significantly increase REE supply is paramount to facilitating the emergence of new technologies that can help to preserve the world as we know it.
In 2017-18, ACI forecasts that China will represent about half of global supply due to new supply entering the market from the U.S., Africa and Malaysia. Even with this new capacity, supply and demand are expected to be tightly balanced due to continued strong demand for REOs products.
Ernst & Young, April 2011. Technology Minerals. “The rare earths race is on!”
Gowing, Matt, February 8, 2011. “2011 Rare Earth Industry Update.” Mackie Research Capital Corporation.
Kingsnorth, Dudley, May 2010, IMCOA. “An Overview of the Rare Earths Market.”
United States of America Department of Energy, December 2010. Critical Materials Strategy.