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Rare Earth Minerals: How Rare Are They?

March 8, 2011
Rare Earth Elements
Journal of Material Science 41 (2006) 3583-3592

Last September, a potential shortage of rare earth materials made news when China withheld shipments to Japan after a maritime incident occurred near a disputed island chain in the East China Sea.  China holds a monopoly on the production of rare earth minerals, and Japan is the largest customer, converting the materials into ultra strong rare earth magnets.  Tensions eased several months later when shipments resumed, but this event raised public awareness about the vulnerability caused by potential shortages or international disputes.

So has the crisis been resolved?  No, not at all.  So what are rare earths, and why is this a big deal?

Rare earth metals include 15 rather obscure elements in the periodic table (called the lanthanides) plus two others with similar properties (scandium and yttrium).  They are often overlooked, as their names are difficult to pronounce, but these metals and their oxides have very special and useful optical and magnetic properties.

Rare earths are like “vitamins” in food.  They are used in small amounts, but their effect can be extraordinary.

The term “rare earth” is misleading, as rare earths are as abundant in the earth’s crust as many more common metals such as nickel, cobalt, or tin, and certainly more abundant than precious metals such as gold or silver.  But, abundance does not tell the whole story.   Locations where rare earth concentration is high enough to mine economically and where resources such as water, power, and chemicals are available, are relatively few.

Until about 20 years ago, rare earths were not in high demand.  But in the 1980s, ultra strong permanent magnets became possible with the discovery of a neodymium-iron-boron material (Nd2Fe14B).  Stronger magnets provided the means to miniaturize devices where magnets are used, and a revolution of lightweight and down-sized products resulted.  The production of NdFeB magnets has grown rapidly to a $4.1 billion global industry, and their use is quite widespread in products used by consumers, industry, and the military.  Rare earth magnets lie at the heart of many of the consumer electronic products that have become so familiar in recent years, including: cell phones, laptop computers, small hard drives, and many personal electronic devices.  Rare earth magnets are quite important for clean energy, especially wind turbines where large amounts of rare earth metals are used in the electric generator.  Solid state laser systems, phosphors used in fluorescent lighting and flat panel displays, optical fiber communications, and satellite communications all rely on rare earth materials.

The use of essential rare earth materials for defense uses is extensive and includes:  jet fighter engines and aircraft electrical systems; missile guidance systems, including precision guidance munitions, lasers, and smart bombs; electronic countermeasures systems; underwater mine detection systems; antimissile defense systems; weapons systems display panels, communication systems, and radar systems.

Posted by Richard Tenaglia