What are rare earth elements?
Rare earth elements are a group of 17 rarely found elements that are present in the periodic table. Out of these 17 rare elements, 15 elements are part of the Lanthanide series. These 15 lanthanides, along with two other rare elements, scandium and yttrium, are together known as Rare Earth Elements (REEs). The 15 elements in the Lanthanides series are cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, gadolinium, dysprosium, erbium, ytterbium, lutetium, thulium, holmium, terbium, europium, promethium, and praseodymium.
These rare earth elements are also called as rare earth metals because all of the above elements are essentially metals in nature. Most of the time, these elements are found together in the form of geological deposits. The rare earth elements are divided into two categories: light rare earth elements (LREEs) and Heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREEs). The LREEs include lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, and samarium. The HREEs are scandium, yttrium, gadolinium, dysprosium, erbium, ytterbium, lutetium, thulium, holmium, terbium, and europium.
Matamec’s Kipawa deposit in Témiscamingue, Québec features light and heavy rare earths, and is enriched in heavies.
Heavy (in yellow) and Light (in purple) Rare Earth Elements on the Periodic Table (image from geology.com)
Which are the biggest rare earth elements producers in the world?
Very few countries in the world have abundant resources of rare earth elements. Amongst the countries that produce rare earth elements, China is the dominant player in the world. China has been supplying the rest of the world with 97% of their rare earths since the early 1980s. However, China’s recent cutback on export quotas is creating opportunities for exploration and development by non-Chinese rare earth companies. With uncertainty in the REE supply, the race is on for these companies to be first to market.
Other important rare earth elements producers in the world are India, Malaysia, Australia, and Russia. China, USA and Commonwealth countries have the largest rare earth elements reserves in the world.
What are rare earths used for?
Rare earth metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day such as computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, 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 7 billion in use today. The use of rare earth elements in computers 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, portable computers, and cameras.
Several pounds of rare earth compounds are in batteries that power every electric vehicle and hybrid-electric vehicle. As concerns for energy independence, climate change, and other issues drive the sale of electric and hybrid 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 the polishing of optical-quality glass. All of these products are expected to experience rising demand.
The global demand for automobiles, consumer electronics, energy-efficient lighting, and catalysts is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade. Rare earth magnet demand is expected to increase, as is the demand for rechargeable batteries. New developments in medical technology are expected to increase the use of surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, and positron emission tomography scintillation detectors.
Rare earth elements are heavily used in all of these industries, so the demand for them should remain high.