March 16 2011

Rare Earths

The first interesting thing to note about Rare Earths is that they aren’t all that rare. Out of the 17 elements considered rare earths, only Promethium is really rare (it’s radioactive and has a half life of 17.7 years at the best). The reason they are termed rare is that for the most part they don’t occur in large concentrations. Mineral deposits with enough of a concentration to make extracting rare earths economically feasible are somewhat scarce.
Currently, rare earths are used in all sort of things. These include cell phones and catalytic converters.

The second interesting thing you will often see (often with hints of conspiracy) is that the Chinese control 97% of the worlds supply. Oh my Eleventy! 111! A more accurate statement is that China currently produces 97% of the worlds supply. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Until about 20 years ago demand for rare earth elements was much lower (and increasing at a lower rate) than it is today. So, someone sitting back 20 years ago might have forecast that demand (and thus) price for rare earths wasn’t going to change much in relative terms and so developing new mines wasn’t that much of an economic priority. In the US, the largest mine was the Mountain Pass rare earth mine
. Through a combination of mismanagement (lots of environmental leaks) and misjudging of prices, this mine went inactive between 1998 and 2002. Chinese production had increased at that point and demand hadn’t quite caught up. So, for a while people were mostly happy to let the Chinese mine and produce the rare earth elements in China with cheaper labor and shall we say less than strict environmental regulations.
Here’s a nice supply and demand chart:

Since about 2009, a couple of things have happened to change this whole picture. For various reasons, on September 1, 2009, China announced plans to reduce its export quota to 35,000 tons per year in 2010-2015. Looking at the chart, on the left, you can see that the demand outside of China is greater than 35,000 tons per year. What happens when demand is greater than supply? That’s right, the price pretty much has gone vertical.

Now, the nice thing about the price increasing from a supply point of view is that now there is incentive to either open new mines or reopen old ones. For example, the Mountain Pass mine that we mentioned earlier is expected to resume operation this year.

That all seems fine, supply and demand working as they should. So, is there a potential for running out of rare earths anytime in the near future? An excellent report from the USGS is available here that describes US and global known reserves of rare earth elements. The report concludes that global reserves are at about 99 million metric tons with the United States having 13 million metric tons of rare earth elements. From the above chart, current usage is about 250000 metric tons. This is steadily increasing, but reserves look like they should last for quite a while. This is especially true in that many of the uses of rare earths could be recyled.



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Posted March 16, 2011 by user in category "Uncategorized

4 COMMENTS :

  1. By Ian on

    Very interesting! I didn’t know the situation was, at least slightly, more optimistic than I’d been led to believe. I think we’ll see more push for efficient recycling of the rare earth metals from discarded devices, too. I’m not sure if there are ways to do that on a large scale that aren’t hideous from an environmental standpoint, but I hope so.

    Reply
    1. By Steven Halter (Post author) on

      Thanks Ian! Glad you noticed this since your various posts (Peak Helium, Voynich & Number Stations) are inspiring me to step up my game here.
      Yeah, that is one of the problems–the minerals tend to be at least slightly radioactive, so that makes mining them an environmental problem.

      Reply
  2. By Ian on

    I didn’t know about the radioactivity problem, either. See, I’m learning all sorts of stuff today!

    Reply
    1. By Steven Halter (Post author) on

      Yeah, it’s actually that ores with uranium and radium tend to occur in the same ores as the rare earths. After refining the rare earths you are left with slightly radioactive ‘tailings.’

      Reply

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