A Simple Guide to Rare Earths

Rare earth elements are crucial to modern technology and are one of the most important components in the manufacturing of many products. Their significance has made them political weapons in the Trade War, too. But what are rare earths, and why are they important?

SA Oil explains what rare earths are and why they are important

What Are Rare Earths?

Rare earth elements (REE), as they are formally titled, are a group of 17 elements that appear together on the periodic chart of elements, comprising yttrium and 15 lanthanide elements including cerium, europium and dysprosium. Many scientists classify scandium as a rare earth as well as it can be found in rare earth element deposits. Each rare earth is actually a metal, so they are also known as rare earth metals. Sharing many properties, several of these metal substances can be found in deposits together. They are also extremely valuable because of their magnetic, catalytic and electrochemical properties.

SA Oil show what the rare earth europium looks like

A large lump of europium. Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eu-Block.jpg

Where Are Rare Earths Found?

Despite their name, rare earths are actually found all over the world – you may even find some in your back yard, though in extremely small quantities. Mineralogists refer to them as ‘dispersed,’ meaning that they occur all over the planet but in predominantly low concentrations. However, even the rarest rare earth is still almost 200 times more abundant than gold! Rare earth mining is a very costly business, though – finding locations at which the concentration of rare earths is high enough to begin an economical extraction operation is rare in itself. Thus, while they can be found almost everywhere in the world, some areas contain higher concentrations of rare earths than others. Areas of the world which contain large amounts of rare earths include Brazil, Burundi and Vietnam. The top three rare earth producing countries are China (over 120,000 metric tonnes), Australia (20,000 metric tonnes) and the US (15,000 metric tonnes).


Rare Earths in South Africa

South Africa is renowned for its wealth of minerals, but it was only recently that its large deposit of rare earths at the Steenkampskraal Mine in the Western Cape, located about 350km north of Cape Town, has found the spotlight again. The mine was used to produce thorium, a nuclear fuel component in the mid-1900s. The mine’s wealth of monazite ore contains rare earth minerals like neodymium and praseodymium. According to a chairman of the mine, the ‘rocks’ contain approximately 14% of extremely high-grade rare earths – a stark contract to the world average, which is 6% or less. The find may put South Africa in a better position with regards to the Trade War between the US and China, the former of which is struggling to obtain the quantity of rare earth elements it requires given that the US purchases 80% of its rare earths from China –  something which Beijing has threatened to end.

How Are Rare Earths Obtained?

Like other minerals and ores, rare earths are mined. Found in clusters comprising many types of rare earths, they have to be harvested and separated into their various kinds. However, before 1965, there was very little demand for the metals and most of the world’s supply was sourced from placer deposits in India and Brazil. South Africa became the leading producer of rare earths in the 1950s, given its large reserves of monazite ore. As technology advanced and colour TV sets grew in popularity, so too did the demand for rare earths, and America took the lead in rare earth production through its Mountain Pass Mine in California, which was producing europium from bastnasite ore. China took the title of world’s biggest rare earths producer in the 1990s and have retained it ever since as a result of their enormous rare earth metal reserves.

What Are Rare Earths Used For?

In the 21st century, it’s possible to say that we cannot live without rare earths. They are used in the production and manufacturing of many high-tech gadgets, mechanical objects and even in the world of medicine. Here are some rare earth items you’re probably familiar with…

  • Powerful magnets used in loudspeakers, computer hard drives and wind turbines all contain the rare earth metal neodymium
  • Camera and telescope lenses are made using lanthanum
  • Praseodymium is used to create strong metals for aircraft engines, as well as in the visors used by welders and glassmakers
  • Medical equipment like X-ray and MRI machinery, as well as television screens, comprise the rare earth metal gadolinium
  • Yttrium, terbium and europium are all used to manufacture devices that use visual displays like computers, televisions and mobile phones
  • Many rare earths are used as catalysts in the cracking process of crude oil.

Rare Earths and the Trade War

When Trump ordered the ban on Chinese tech giant Huawei, China sought to retaliate with their own ‘tech ban’ – rare earths. The US is a major rare earth consumer and relies heavily on China’s supply to produce many of their tech goods. Given the threat, the US military is contemplating a partnership with Australia – the world’s second largest rare earths producer – to disrupt China’s dominance over the market and, at the same time, ensure their supply of the important commodity is not disrupted.

Though the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has called US President Trump’s offer absurd, Trump’s intention to purchase Greenland may not have been as ludicrous as it initially seemed – the country is located near to North Atlantic shipping routes (opening due to the melting of polar ice caps) and holds a vast wealth of largely untapped natural resources, including rare earths. Even China has been eyeing the world’s largest island of late. Any investment by either superpower would provide them with major influence over trade and resources in the area, and perhaps leverage in the intensifying Trade War. For now, however, neither party has succeeded in infiltrating the island country, and Trump may be burning more bridges than he’s building…

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