Have you ever wondered how energy saving light bulbs shine, the permanent magnetics in consumer electronics attract and repel or how catalysts, catalyse? Well I haven't either, but I know that without rare earth metals the chances are that these applications products would not work as well as they do.
Rare earth metals (REMs) are a group of 17 elements, consisting of the 15 lanthanides (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium) plus scandium and yttrium.
The name suggests these metals are rare, but apart from promethium, they are relatively abundant. The most common REMs (cerium, lanthanum and yttrium) are actually more prevalent than some common industrial metals such as lead. However, finding them in high enough concentrations to make extraction economically viable is the stumbling block.
China is the global leader, producing 95% of the world's REMs. The remaining 5% is produced in small amounts by Russia, US, Brazil and Vietnam. China has been able to monopolize production of REMs because of its less stringent environmental and safety procedures. This means China can produce REMs at a lower price than producers in other countries. China has been controlling the world REM market by steadily reducing annual export quotas. China is looking to safeguard its domestic market by raising prices for foreign consumers, resulting in them paying up to three times more than domestic consumers. The Chinese government are looking to tighten regulations and limit mining rights to a small number of state owned companies.
With China being so dominant, the supply chain risk for a lot of technology firms is very high. So top importers Japan, Thailand, the US, and Germany, with their well-established electronics and car industries, make heavy use of REMs. As a direct result of the action taken by China, countries such as the US, Australia and Vietnam (36 in total) are looking to bring their own REM mines online, thus reducing the reliance on China.
As an example, since the closure of the Mountain Pass mine in California in 2002, the US has imported almost all of its REMs. In 2008 Chevron sold a mine to a privately held firm, Molycorp Minerals LLC, a company formed to revive Mountain Pass. Mining recommenced in December of 2010. So in the case of europium, ytterbium, cerium and terbium we could say the future is looking brighter.
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