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Rare Earth Elements: the 21st Century Minerals and China, again!

Posted on November 15th, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

periodic table of elements

(Source: Science Notes http://sciencenotes.org)

Could economic wars be launched over mineral resources critical to industrial products that define our 21st century living standards?  We are speaking of critical minerals used in the components of smart phones, tablets, laptop computers, photovoltaic and fuel cells, catalytic converters, Internet of things; reaction catalysts; super magnets; specialty metals, and many other advanced technologies of the 21st Century (Source: G. Charalampides et al, Procedia Economics and Finance 24, 2015).  Very few have ever heard of those minerals even though they permeate our cherished information age lives.  Where are those minerals located and who controls them?

What are the Rare Earth Elements (REE)?

If you have not heard of Lanthanides, do not feel bad because most other people have not heard of them either. They form a group called Rare earth elements consisting of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the Periodic Table of Elements. The Group is listed separately at the bottom of the Table in the header picture.  Starting with Yttrium, the names of the 15 Lanthanide elements are mouthfuls: Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium. Scandium is an adjunct member.

The rare earth elements are all metals, and the group is also called the “rare earth metals.” They have many similar properties that often cause them to be found together in geologic deposits. They are also referred to as “rare earth oxides” because many of them are typically sold as oxide compounds. You would be correct to say so what? ¬†Read on to find out the applications of the rare earth elements.¬† Here are some of the uses of these elements (Source: P. Christmann, Procedia Engineering 83, 2014) and BBC, www.bbc.com):

Neodymium

This is used to make powerful magnets used in loudspeakers and computer hard drives to enable them to be smaller and more efficient. Magnets containing neodymium are also used in green technologies such as the manufacture of wind turbines and hybrid cars.

Lanthanum

This element is used in camera and telescope lenses. Compounds containing lanthanum are used extensively in carbon lighting applications, such as studio lighting and cinema projection.

Cerium

Used in catalytic converters in cars, enabling them to run at high temperatures and playing a crucial role in the chemical reactions in the converter. Lanthanum and cerium are also used in the process of refining crude oil.

Praseodymium

Used to create strong metals for use in aircraft engines. Praseodymium is also a component of a special sort of glass, used to make visors to protect welders and glassmakers.

Gadolinium

Used in X-ray and MRI scanning systems, and also in television screens. Research is also being done into its possible use in developing more efficient refrigeration systems.

Yttrium, Terbium, Europium

Important in making televisions and computer screens and other devices that have visual displays as they are used in making materials that give off different colors. Europium is also used in making control rods for nuclear reactors.

There are also critical defense applications:

Lanthanum: night-vision goggles

Neodymium: laser range finders, guidance systems, communications

Europium: fluorescents and phosphors in lamps and monitors

Erbium: amplifiers in fiber-optic data transmission

Samarium: permanent magnets that are stable at high temperatures

Samarium: precision-guided weapons

Samarium: “white noise” production in stealth technology

An important application involves rare earth elements such as dysprosium, europium and terbium are quite rare, in high and fast growing demand; as they either are indispensable to the production of Fe-B-Nd (Dy) permanent magnets, the highest performance magnetic material currently being available at industrial scale, or to the production of phosphors essential to the production of fluorescent compact, energy saving, light bulbs and video displays.  Considering demand for these elements is increasing at 10% compounded annual growth rate, the question arises about their future availability (Source: P. Christmann, Procedia Engineering 83, 2014).

Who Holds the REE Reserves?

Needless to say, reliable supplies of the REE are required to continue the 21st Century life style and standards.  A number of studies have been published about the available supplies and the geography of the REE mines.  US Geological Survey (USGS) publishes a Mineral Commodity Summaries annually.

Table 1 provides the USGS’s estimates of production rate and reserves of several countries.  China not only is the largest consumer of the rare earth elements but it holds more reserves than the other countries.  It has a whopping 30 times larger REE reserves than the USA.

Table 1 Estimated Production and Reserves of REE in the World
(Source: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2016, US Dept Interior, US Geological Survey, January 28, 2016. Click to enlarge the images.)

Estimated Production and Reserves

Figure 1 shows the evolution of the production of REE over the last 60+ years.  European countries are absent from the list of major producers or reserve holders.  Clearly, China has become the dominant producer of the REE while production by the US and other countries has dwindled (Figure 2) .  It would not be an exaggeration to say developed economies are at the mercy of the rest of the world because of the location of REE reserves.  Some of those countries like China and Russia are competitors and, at times, adversaries of the West.

Figure 1 Production Rate of Rare Earth Element from 1950 to 2015
(Source: Geology News and Information, http://geology.com, September 2016)

rare earth

Figure 2 Global Location of Rare Earth Elements Reserves
(Source: Duke Center for Sustainability & Commerce, based on US Geological Survey Mineral Summaries 2008-2011, https://center.sustainability.duke.edu)

Global Location of Rare Earth Elements

A collision between a Chinese trawler and the Japanese coast guard in September 2010 and arrest of the Chinese captain, flared up tensions between Japan and China (Source; East Asia Forum, www.eastasiaforum.org).  China reportedly suspended shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to the ship captain’s arrest. Japan’s massive high technology manufacturing is reliant on REE imports from China.  The issue was quietly resolved and ostensibly the shipment of REE was reinstated back to normal.  Some interpreted this incident as a clear evidence of the Chinese government’s willingness to wage economic warfare on the slightest provocation.  A lingering question has been: did China really embargo REE shipments to Japan in September 2010?

Two recent studies cast doubt on whether there was actually an embargo on exports to Japan and, if there was, whether this was linked to the Chinese trawler captain’s arrest. Analysis of Japanese port data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance shows that there was no uniform drop in Japanese imports of Chinese rare earths following the trawler collision. Similarly, a 2012 article in The Chinese Journal of International Politics cites Japanese and US news media to demonstrate that Japanese officials and businesses had been aware since mid-August 2010 of Chinese plans to reduce their worldwide rare earths exports.

The studies suggest any decline in rare earth exports to Japan in the latter half of 2010 was more likely the result of China‚Äôs earlier decision to cut worldwide rare earths exports. Chinese industry newspapers and magazines, such as Xitu Xinxi (Rare Earth Information), suggest that in July 2010, two months before the trawler collision, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced its decision to reduce China‚Äôs global rare earths exports by 40% in the second half of 2010. Articles in Xitu Xinxi in July and August 2010 acknowledge that this Chinese decision sent businesses and officials in Japan ‚ÄĒ China‚Äôs largest market for rare earths ‚ÄĒ into a panic, and by October 2010 the effects were taking hold (Source; East Asia Forum, www.eastasiaforum.org).

China’s total rare earths exports declined by 77% in 2010, according to Chinese industry magazine Jiancai Fazhan Daoxiang (Building Materials Development Guide), and global prices quadrupled. The price of one major rare earth compound, cerium oxide went from US$4.7/kg in April 2010 to US$36/kg in October.  There have been fluctuations in prices since 2010.  The long-term picture, however, has not changed substantially because China continues to produce REE at reduced rates.

The U.S. Department of Energy is anticipating a critical shortage of 5 rare earth elements necessary for green technology development and construction. These REE are neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.  It is believed that the United States and a number of other countries are beginning to stockpile their reserves of REE in anticipation of coming shortages (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Anticipated future shortage of Rare Earth Elements (Source: US Department of Energy, www.DOE.gov)

anticipated future shortage

China has managed to dominate the global REE market by virtue of low production cost. Cheap land, energy and labor minimize costs plus environmental damages are not factored into the cost of production.  The combinations of large reserves and inexpensive production expenses have placed China in an enviable position considering the rampant demand for the REE in the 21st century high technology products.

‚ÄúThere is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China,‚ÄĚ declared Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China‚Äôs economic transformation, in 1992.¬† Let‚Äôs hope the Chinese do not use their advantageous REE position as a tool for pressure and blackmail in conducting foreign policy in the future.


 

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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