The demand for rare earth elements is rising rapidly but their occurrence in minable deposits is very limited.
What Are Rare Earth Elements (REEs)?
Rare earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table (see
image at right). The group consists of yttrium and the 15 lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium,
promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium).
Scandium is found in most rare earth element deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth element.
The rare earth elements are all metals and the group is often referred to as the "rare earth metals". These metals have
many similar properties and that often causes them to be found together in geologic deposits.
Rare earth metals and alloys that contain them are used in many devices that people use every day such as: computer memory, DVD's, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, car 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
5 billion in use today. The usage of computers and DVDs has grown almost as fast as cell phones.
United States Usage
Metallurgy & alloys
Phosphors for monitors, television, lighting
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, computers and cameras.
Several pounds of rare earth compounds are in batteries that power electric vehicles and hybrid-electric vehicles.
As concerns for energy independence, climate change and other issues drive the sale of electric 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 optical-quality glass. All of these products are expected to
experience rising demand.
Other substances can be substituted for rare earth elements in their most important uses, however, these substitutes are usually
less effective and costly.
From the 1950s until the early 2000s cerium oxide was a very popular lapidary polish. It was inexpensive and very effective. The recent price increases
have almost eliminated the use of cerium oxide in the lapidary arts.
Rare earth elements play an essential role in our national defense. In the
Gulf Wars, night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons and other defense
technology gave the United States military a tremendous advantage.
Rare earth metals are key ingredients for making the very hard alloys used to make armored vehicles and projectiles that shatter upon impact in thousands of sharp fragments.
Substitutes can be used for rare earth elements in some defense applications, however,
those subsitutes are not as effective and that will diminish military superiority.
Several uses of rare earth elements are summarized in the table below (5).
pernament magnets that are stable at high temperatures
"white noise" production in stealth technology
Are These Elements Really "Rare"?
Rare earth elements are not as "rare" as their name implies. Thulium and lutetium are the two least abundant rare
earth elements - but they each have an average crustal abundance that is nearly 200 times greater than the crustal abundance of gold (1). However, these
metals are very difficult to mine because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction.
The most abundant rare earth elements are cerium, yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium (2). They have average crustal abundances that
are similar to commonly used industrial metals such as chromium, nickel, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten and lead (1). Again, they are
rarely found in extractable concentrations.
Rare Earth Element Mine Production and Trade
Significant amounts of rare earth elements are produced in only a few countries.
China is the dominant producer of rare earth elements and is believed to be
responsible for over 95% of the world mine production on a rare earth oxide
equivalent basis. Other countries with notable production in 2009 were: Brazil,
India, Kyrgyzstan and Malaysia. Minor production may have occurred in Indonesia,
Commonwealth of Independent States, Nigeria, North Korea and Vietnam (3). The United States Geological Survey reports
that significant exploration and new mining activity is expected from Canada and
World Mine Production and Reserves (2009 Data)
Production (Metric Ton)
Reserves (Metric Ton)
Commonwealth of Independent States
World total (rounded)
China's World Production Dominance
China became the world's dominant producer of rare earth elements in the early 1990s, when production at the Mountain
Pass mine in California began to decline. China's dominance increased rapidly and in 2000 China accounted for
about 90% of world rare earth production. China sold rare earths at such low prices that the Mountain Pass mine
and others throughout the world were unable to compete.
In early 2010 China accounted for over 95% of the world's rare earth production. China is also the dominant consumer
of rare earth elements, used mainly in manufacturing electronics products for domestic and export markets. Japan and the United States are the second and third largest consumers of rare earth materials.
China announced that they would significantly restrict their rare earth exports to ensure a supply for domestic
manufacturing. This announcement triggered some panic buying and rare earth prices shot up to record high levels.
Chinese companies have also been seeking rare earth properties in other countries. For example: in 2009
China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company bought a majority stake in Lynas Corporation, an Australian company that has
one of the highest outputs of rare earth elements outside of China.
The Dangers of a Dominant World Producer
Supply and demand normally determine the market price of a commodity.
As supplies shrink prices go up. As prices go higher those who control the supply are
tempted to sell and entrepreneurs start developing new sources of supply.
With rare earth elements the time between an entrepreneur's decision to
acquire a property and the start of production can be
several years or longer. There is no quick way to increase supply.
If a single country controls almost all of the production and makes
a firm decision not to export then the entire supply of a commodity
can be quickly cut off. That is a dangerous situation when new sources
of supply take so long to develop.
World Rare Earth Mineral Resources
"Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, but discovered minable concentrations are less common than
for most other ores. U.S. and world resources are contained primarily in bastnäsite and monazite. Bastnäsite deposits in
China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world's rare-earth economic resources, while monazite
deposits in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States constitute
the second largest segment. Apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phosphorites, rare-earth-bearing (ion adsorption)
clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime make up most of the remaining resources. Undiscovered
resources are thought to be very large relative to expected demand." Quoted from the United States Geological
Survey's Mineral Commodity Summary (2).
Large undeveloped deposits of rare earth minerals are known to occur in China. Significant deposits are also
known in Australia. Exploration is identifying new deposits in Canada and the United States.
Did You Know? Rare earth magnets are used in wind turbines. Some large turbines require two TONS of rare earth magnets. These magnets are very strong and make the turbines highly efficient. Rare earth magnets are used in turbines and generators in many alternative energy applications.
Rare Earth Element Outlook
"Rare-earth use in automotive pollution control catalysts,
permanent magnets, and rechargeable batteries are expected
to continue to increase as future demand for conventional
and hybrid automobiles, computers, electronics, and portable
equipment grows. Rare-earth markets are expected to require
greater amounts of higher purity mixed and separated products
to meet the demand. Demand for cerium and neodymium for use
in automotive catalytic converters and catalysts for petroleum
refining was expected to expand by 6% to 8% per year for the
next 5 years if the world economy remains strong.
magnet demand was expected to increase by 10% to 16% per
year through 2012, increasing to 45,000 t to 50,000 t by 2012
(Kingsnorth, 2008). Future growth was expected for rare earths
in rechargeable NiMH batteries, especially those used in hybrid
vehicles, increasing to 10,000 t to 20,000 t REO by 2012. NiMH
demand was also expected to increase (moderated by increasing
demand for lithium-ion batteries) with increased use in portable
equipment, such as camcorders, cellular telephones, compact
disk players, digital cameras, digital video disk players, laptop
computers, and MPEG audio-layer-3 players.
Increased rare earth
use was expected in fiber optics, medical applications that
include dental and surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging,
medical contrast agents, medical isotopes, and positron emission
tomography scintillation detectors. Future growth potential
was projected for rare-earth alloys employed in magnetic
refrigeration (Gschneidner and Pecharsky, 2008)." Quoted from
the United States Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook (3).
References cited in the USGS Minerals Yearbook (3):
Kingsnorth, Dudley, 2008, Rare earths supply - Alternatives to China: Littleton,
CO, Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration Inc. meeting and
exhibit, Salt Lake City, UT, February 26, 2009, Presentation, 25 pages.
Gschneidner, Karl, Jr., and Pecharsky, Vitalij, 2008, Magnetic refrigeration/heat
engines: Littleton, CO, Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration Inc.
meeting and exhibit, Salt Lake City, UT, February 26, 2009, Presentation, 20 pages.
REE Periodic Table: The Rare Earth Elements are the 15 lanthanide series elements, plus yttrium. Scandium is found in most rare earth element deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth element. Image by Geology.com.
The first part of this video provides an introduction to rare earth elements. The second half is distinctly promotional but also contains some interesting information - seldom described elsewhere - about what it takes to develop a mine site.
The rare earth elements are often subdivided into "Heavy Rare Earths" and "Light Rare Earths". Lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium,
promethium and samarium are the "light rare earths". Yttrium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium are the "heavy rare earths". Although yttrium is lighter than the light rare earth elements, it is included in the heavy rare earth group because of its chemical and physical associations with heavy rare earths in natural deposits.
These rare-earth oxides are used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are eroding (4). Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Image by Peggy Greb, USDA image gallery.
6) The Geology of Rare Earth Elements: Republication of "The Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States-A Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective".
Did You Know? Prices for rare earth materials have been rising for the past decade. Supplies are limited and demand is growing rapidly. China produces over 95% of the supply. Deposits in Australia, Canada and the United States are being explored.
Rare Earth Element Map
In 2009, China produced over 95% of the world supply of rare earth element ores. The USGS Mineral Commodity Summary (2) reported production tonnages for India, Brazil, Malaysia and the Commonwealth of Independent States. Rare earth element resources are known to exist in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Malawi and Sri Lanka, however, production from those countries was insignificant during 2009.
Rare Earth Elements Principal Sources Map: This map shows the country of origin for rare earths imported
into the United States during 2008. China, the dominant miner of rare earth minerals is the primary source.
Austria, France, Japan and Russia do not have notable mine production of rare earth minerals, however, they
are a source of unprocessed ores, refined metals, alloys or rare earth compounds. NOTE: The United States is the second largest importer of rare earth elements. Japan is the largest importer, needing rare earth materials to supply its active electronics and auto industries. Image by the United States Geological Survey (3).