What are rare-earth elements.
Rare-earth elements is a group of 17 metallic elements, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, which form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials for use in emerging technology including renewable sources like wind and solar. Despite their name, most earth metals are not particularly rare, but most of the industry has moved to China over the last two decades because of lower costs. China’s dominance in mining and processing the elements has raised alarms in Washington. In the late 1980’s the US was global leader in production but mines around the world were closed when China undercut world prices in the 1990s. The difficulty today is extracting in profitable quantities. Pictured: Rare-earth oxides – clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.
- Importance in new “green’ technology
- Are these elements really “rare”?
- Supply and demand
- Japan’s need for rare earths
- Situation in the USA
- Environmental questions
Importance in new “green” technology
According to an April 2010 Government Accountability Office report, China now produces approximately 97% of the world’s rare-earth oxides, the raw materials that can be further refined into metals and blended into alloys that can be made into finished components. (China held about half of the world’s reserves of rare earths in 2011, with 55 million metric tons, compared with 19 million tons in Russia and 13 million tons in the U.S. link)
Rare-earth metals are used in computer hard drives, digital cameras, cell phones among many other things. They are also key to “green” technology such as energy-efficient light bulbs which use europium and yttrium, while hybrid car batteries and wind-power turbines use neodymium. Lanthanum is also used in the batteries of hybrid cars, and Toyota, for example, uses an estimated 7,500 tons of lanthanum and 1,000 tons of neodymium per year to build its Prius cars. A Nissan Leaf contains 11kg of lanthanum. A major concern for the US military is that these metals also have important military applications because of their magnetic strength, which allows for extraordinary miniaturization of components. The fins that steer precision bombs, for instance, have samarium-cobalt permanent magnet motors. The motors that run the rudder and tail fins on a high-performance fighter aircraft like the Air Force F-22 Raptor are built with lightweight, rare-earth magnets. Neodymium is found in the solid-state lasers used to designate targets.
October 2013: Greenland opens up to rare earth mining. Greenland’s parliament has voted to end a decades-long prohibition on mining for radioactive materials such as uranium, and will now allow the mining of rare earths. With sea ice thawing and new Arctic shipping routes opening, Greenland has emerged from isolation and gained wider geopolitical attention thanks to its untapped mineral wealth. Greenland’s “zero tolerance” policy on mining radioactive materials is inherited from Denmark, but the island is keen to develop mining to help pay for welfare and jobs in a country with a population of about 57,000, mostly Inuits. (The uranium decision may need to be approved by the Danish parliament.) link
November 2012. Next generation of electric vehicles may exclude rare earths. A variety of electric motors that use no rare earth minerals are being developed in the United States to power future generations of electric vehicles. Private U.S. companies, universities and national government laboratories are designing and beginning to manufacture electric motors without rare earth minerals that are expensive and in limited supply. link
Are these elements really rare?
Not really. The term “rare earth” is an archaic one dating back to the elements’ discovery by a Swedish army lieutenant in 1787. Most, but not all, are fairly common, but scattered throughout ores that make them hard and expensive to secure. They have been used in the flints in cigarette lighters and incandescent gas lamps for more than a century, but today mining is almost nonexistent outside of China. Cerium is used in batteries and to cut auto emissions and is more common in the earth’s crust than copper. The United States’ only major rare-earth mine, a complex in Mountain Pass, California, was once the world’s leading producer but was shut down in 2002. “Light” rare earth elements such as cerium, an ingredient used in enamels and glasses, are plentiful, but “heavy” ones such as europium, used for color TVs and other screens, are growing harder to come by. The limited supply of the minerals in the marketplace is the result of economic and environmental concerns, not scarcity. The world consumes only a tiny amount of rare earth, about 130,000 metric tons a year. The U.S. Magnet Materials Association predicts that China’s own demands for some of the minerals will outstrip supply in two to five years.
January 2014: North Korea may have two-thirds of world’s rare earths. A U.K.-based private equity firm has found the largest rare earth oxides deposits in the world in North Korea, according to statements by the company. Estimates suggest the Jongju deposit holds 216 million tons of rare earth oxides which would more than double the current global stockpiles which the U.S. Geographical Survey recently estimated at 110 million tons. Theoretically, the discovery could break China’s stranglehold on the market, as North Korea would have over six times the amount of rare earths. However the political environment in North Korea is exceedingly difficult to work in and this has inhibited Pyongyang’s ability to exploit its significant mineral wealth for decades. link
Are there alternatives to rare earths? Researchers in the US are already working on making rare earths redundant. The University of California at Irvine has already done research indicating pyrite, sometimes called “fool’s gold”, may be able to replace rare earths in many green applications, though its future isn’t yet proven. link
Supply and demand
May 2016: Coal ash rich in rare earths. A U.S. study of the content of rare earth elements in coal ash shows that coal mined from the Appalachian Mountains could be the proverbial golden goose for hard-to-find materials critical to clean energy and other emerging technologies. In the wake of a 2014 coal ash spill into North Carolina’s Dan River from a ruptured Duke Energy drainage pipe, the question of what to do with the nation’s aging retention ponds and future coal ash waste has been a highly contested topic. link
January 2015: China scraps quota system restricting exports of rare earth minerals. Beijing imposed the restriction in 2009 while it tried to develop its own industry for the 17 minerals, and last year, a WTO panel ruled that China had failed to show the export quotas were justified. China is estimated to be responsible for 90% of the world’s production, despite only having a third of the world’s deposits The United States, the European Union and Japan had complained that China was limiting exports in a bid to drive up prices. Under the new guidelines, rare earths will still require an export licence but the amount that can be sold abroad will no longer be covered by a quota. link
March 2011: China to cap rare earth output at 93,800 tonnes. China’s land and resources ministry said this would up 5% on 2010 figures and added the ministry would not approve any new prospecting or production licenses for rare earths, tungsten or antimony until June 30, 2012. link (2012 quotas unchanged from 2011 – link)
September 2012: Will there be enough? According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, world demand for rare earth metals is estimated to be 136,000 tons per year, and projected to rise to at least 185,000 tons annually by 2015. With continued global growth of the middle class, especially in China, India and Africa, demand will continue to grow. High-tech products and renewable energy technology cannot function without rare earth metals. Neodymium, terbium and dysprosium are essential ingredients in the magnets of wind turbines and computer hard drives; a number of rare earth metals are used in nickel-metal-hydride rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and many other products; yttrium is necessary for color TVs, fuel cells and fluorescent lamps; europium is a component of compact fluorescent bulbs and TV and iPhone screens; cerium and lanthanum are used in catalytic converters; platinum group metals are needed as catalysts in fuel cell technology; and other rare earth metals are essential for solar cells, cell phones, computer chips, medical imaging, jet engines, defense technology, and much more. link
(More at Congressional Research Survey – June 2012 – pdf)
July 2012: WTO Panel established on China’s rare earths exports. The three complainants, European Union, USA and Japan, requested that a single panel be established to examine complaints including export quotas and duties. The EU said that export restrictions constitute a violation of China’s WTO ((World Trade Organisation) commitments undertaken under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) as well as commitments undertaken in China’s Accession Protocol specifically aimed at these types of restrictions. China argued that it has no intention of protecting domestic industry through means that would distort trade. link
Rare earth prices less than stable.
June 2011: Prices spike as China builds stockpile. Prices for rare-earth metals, which are used in everything from iPods to flat-screen TVs to missiles, are rising sharply as China builds up a stockpile and cuts quotas, so much so that some industries fear global supplies may be in serious jeopardy. Rare-earth metals are among some of the most sought-after materials in modern manufacturing, and demand is soon set to outstrip supply. link
November 2011: Prices decline sharply. After nearly three years of soaring prices, with the cost of some metals rising nearly thirtyfold, the market is rapidly coming back down.
International prices for some light rare earths, like cerium and lanthanum, used in the polishing of flat-screen televisions and the refining of oil, respectively, have fallen as much as two-thirds since August and are still dropping. Prices have declined by roughly one-third since then for highly magnetic rare earths, like neodymium, needed for products like smartphones, computers and large wind turbines. link
January 2012: Shortages occurring and prices soaring. Shortages of a handful of rare minerals could slow the future growth of the burgeoning renewable energy industries, and affect countries’ chances of limiting greenhouse gas emissions, business leaders were told at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. Last year, prices of many scarce minerals exploded, rising as much as 10 times over 2010 levels before dropping back. In a survey of some of the largest clean energy manufacturers, 78% said they were already experiencing instability of supply of rare metals, and most said they did not expect shortages to ease for at least five years. Currently, 95% of the rare earth minerals needed by clean tech industries come from China which has set strict export quotas. Last year China reserved most for its own for its domestic wind, solar and battery industries, shifting costs to the US and Europe which do not mine any of the minerals. None of the minerals is likely to physically run out, but it can take 10 years for countries to open new mines. link
Japan’s need for rare earths
April 2018: Semi-infinite’ trove of rare-earth metals found in Japanese waters. It is estimated the newly discovered trove could supply demand on a “semi-infinite” basis. From the initial discovery a 2,500-square kilometre region off the southern Japanese island could contain 16 million tons of the valuable elements. As it stands, the world is heavily reliant on China for rare earth metals. Only recently has technology reached a stage where extracting these materials is a viable commercial option. Environmental groups have said that mining operations have the potential to destroy marine ecosystems – many of which are still poorly understood. link
July 2011: Japan finds rare-earths in Pacific seabed. Japanese researchers say they have discovered vast deposits of rare earth minerals in the seabed in international waters east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia. Geologists estimate that there are about 100bn tons in 78 locations in the mud of the Pacific Ocean floor. Analysts say the Pacific discovery could challenge China’s dominance, if recovering the minerals from the seabed proves commercially viable. The prospect of deep sea mining for precious metals, and the damage that could do to marine ecosystems, is worrying environmentalists. link
However developing the offshore bounty could take decades and cost billions, making it little more than a pipe dream, analysts say. link
April 2012: Honda debuts world’s first rare earth auto recycling plan. Honda has teamed up with the Japan Metals & Chemicals Company to develop what is being hailed as the world’s first mass-production rare earth recycling process. The companies confirmed that they have developed a new technique for extracting 17 rare chemical elements from used nickel-metal hydride batteries collected from Honda hybrid vehicles at dealers in Japan, North America and Europe. Previous techniques for extracting rare earth metals have been undertaken on a relatively small scale and have required highly controlled conditions, Honda claims to have developed the first process in the world to “extract rare earth metals as part of a mass-production process at a recycling plant”. link
Japan’s response to limited supply. (October 2010:) Japan’s trade minister, Akihiro Ohata, has asked the government to include a “rare earth strategy” in its supplementary budget. In Kosaka, Dowa Holdings, a company that mined there for over a century has built a recycling plant which extracts valuable metals and other minerals. Salvaged parts come not only from Japan, but from around the world, including the USA. Dowa Holdings is trying to develop ways to reclaim earth metals. A government affiliated research group says that used electronics in Japan hold an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths. (Pictured: Motherboards which will be melted for minerals at recycling plant in Kosaka.) link
October 2010: Vietnam agrees to help supply Japan as Tokyo tries to reduce its dependence on China – link
November 2010: According to the first-ever nationwide estimate of rare earth metals by the U.S. Geological Survey, there are approximately 13 million metric tons that exist within known deposits in the U.S. Although many of these deposits have yet to be proven, at recent domestic consumption rates of about 10,000 metric tons annually, the US deposits have the potential to meet our needs for years to come. link
December 2010: U.S. called vulnerable to rare earth shortages. A report says it could take 15 years to break American dependence on Chinese supplies of these critical manufacturing minerals. link
January 2013: New $120 million center will tackle rare earth shortage. The U.S. Department of Energy is fighting back against China’s stranglehold on global rare earth mineral supplies–or at least throwing money at the problem–by awarding $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up a new innovation hub aimed at shoring up American energy security. Officially titled the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), the DOE lab will roll the resources of more than a dozen national labs, universities, and industry partners into one place in an effort to make rare earths less rare. CMI has the unenviable job now of figuring out a solution to this problem. link
April 2011: $30 million in grants for green technologies free of rare earth elements.
The U.S. Department of Energy said it would offer up to $30 million in funding for research on alternatives to rare earth-containing materials used in turbine generators and EV motors. An additional $100 million will be split among other programs for advanced biofuels, thermal energy storage, power grid reliability and lower-cost solar electricity. Since 2009 the high-risk research fund has doled out $363 million in federal stimulus dollars for 121 energy projects and is now in its fourth round of funding. link
(The United States consumes about 10,000 metric tons of rare earths annually, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.)
Available rare earths in the U.S. The United States could offset supply restraints by ramping up mining of the 13 million metric tons of rare earth minerals that are spread across 14 states. Colorado-based Molycorp Inc. has said it will reopen its rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, Calif., which closed in 2002, with a $500 million renovation to reduce the environmental impacts of its mining, namely water pollution and radioactive sludge. link
February 2012: Malaysian activists protest Australian refining plant. About 3,000 Malaysians have staged a protest against a refinery for rare earth elements being built by the Australian mining company Lynas over fears of radioactive contamination. It was the largest rally so far against the £146m plant in a central state of the Malaysian peninsula, and could pose a headache for the government with national elections widely expected this year. Authorities recently granted Lynas a licence to operate the rare earth plant in Pahang state, the first outside China in years, and it has been the subject of heated protests over health and environmental risks posed by potential leaks of radioactive waste. Lynas says its plant, which will refine radioactive ore from Australia has state-of-the-art pollution controls and plans to start operations by June. link
August 2012: China’s heavy environmental cost from poisoning and pollution. The town of Baotou in inner Mongolia, is the largest Chinese source of strategic rare earth elements, essential to advanced technology, from smartphones to GPS receivers, but also to wind farms and, above all, electric cars. The minerals are mined at Bayan Obo, 120 km farther north, then brought to Baotou for processing. From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world. link
September 2011: Discovery of rare earths in Afghanistan. Afghanistan holds enormous bounty of rare earths. The rugged, dangerous desert of southern Afghanistan has identified world-class concentrations of rare earths, the prized group of raw materials that are essential in the manufacture of many modern technologies, from electric cars to solar panels. So far, geologists say, they have mapped one million metric tons of these critical elements, which include lanthanum, cerium and neodymium. That’s enough to supply the world’s rare earth needs for 10 years based on current consumption. Alas, the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) has no plans to send its scientists back anytime soon. The agency’s Pentagon funding has run out, and it is simply too dangerous for Americans to go again without military protection. link