Businesses and countries care about rare earth elements because they are in everything from smartphones, laptops and tablet computers to batteries for hybrid or electric cars.
Rare earth elements are generally defined as the 17 lanthanoids (elements with atomic numbers 57 [lanthium] through 71 [lutetium]) and the two “step-children” of row three of scandium with atomic number 21 and yttrium with atomic number 39. All 17 of these elements have similar chemical structures that give them special uses in mechanical, chemical, metallurgical, optical, catalytic, nuclear, magnetic, and abrasive properties.
Analysis of available information indicates that the rare earth elements are not all that rare. Availability in the Earth’s crust of rare earths is about the same as that of copper. The problem is in the locations of the mines containing the elements, separations, and purifications overlaid with a variety of political and environmental issues. A downside is that there may be radioactive waste, huge environmental waste ponds, and unsightly strip mines. Dumping the waste into the oceans may endanger fishing industries. Beyond the environmental concerns are political policies and concerns. China’s Ministry of Commerce published the “Announcement on the Application Conditions and Procedures for Export Quotas of Rare Earth in 2013” on December 5, 2012.
Also, processing rare earths can be a messy business, especially in China. Required are strong acids such as concentrated sulfuric acid and ammonia. Most of the wastes are dumped in large dump tailings “lakes.” Each motor in a Toyota Prius contains a kilogram of neodymium and each battery more than 10 kilograms of lanthanum produced in China, according to British journalist Lindsey Hilsum. Wastewater may contain radioactive materials. Air emissions include fluorine and sulfur.
According to a Bloomberg report, the rare earth metals are key to the switch to cleaner energy in batteries in hybrid cars to the magnets in wind turbines. Mining and processing the metals causes environmental damage that China, the largest producer, may no longer be willing to bear. This may leave the door open for a few companies outside of China to enter the fray, perhaps in Siberia, as Russia has the largest reserves of rare earth minerals after China.
This brings up the significant trend of new rare earth mines in countries other than China, new mixes and alternatives to the usual combination of rare earths in a given application, price changes, and a new look at recycling and reclaiming rare earths that have already been used in hard drives, smartphones, and batteries.
The above is an extract from the BCC Research report, Top Ten Companies in Rare Earths (AVM090A). To download the complimentary first chapter, please click on the above link.