The rare earths, metals out of the ordinary
the growing geopolitical issues
Lanthanide , scandium and yttrium, elements often ignored, which however are an integral part of our daily lives. More commonly known as the “rare earths”, this group of 17 metals, present in many minerals but in very limited quantities, played a central role in the technological revolution of the past 20 years.
Used in green technology, miniaturized electronics, or even defense systems, the demand for these minerals continues to explode in a context of already tense supply. REE, lie at the centre of a ‘war’ in which States and industry from around the world compete and we will decrypt issues.
REE: high-tech applications thanks to their extraordinary properties
The microscopic structure of rare-earth gives this group of metals physical properties particularly interesting, especially in optical and magnetic levels that make them essential for many high-tech applications.
Their magnetic properties are among others used in type neodymium-iron-boron, or NdFeB permanent magnets, which are the most powerful known today and the key engines and generators of electric vehicles and wind power. Their optical properties are used in the new generation bulbs or fluorescent lamps.
These technologies can use several hundred kilograms of rare earths, but there are also of very small amounts in a multitude of other applications, and particularly in the vast majority of equipment electrical and electronic consumer such as microphones, sensors, audio systems, hard drives and compressors.
But these ores have also many other more unknown uses. Thus the catalytic cracking in fluid bed for the refining of oil, metal alloys, polishing powders and the glass industry represent shares the most important rare earth magnets after consumption, with all 62% uses mass. Catalytic converters, fuel cells, high-temperature superconductors and nanotechnology are also major consumers.
Rare earths are so used in many industrial products and for most of them, they are irreplaceable. The dependence of our economies with regard to these metals is therefore important, as shown by the increase in production and the explosion of the weight of the market over the past ten years, the latter being now estimated between 5 and 10 billion compared with $ 500 million only in 2003 and about 1.5 to 2 billion a year ago.
Ultra-dense production, particularly in China…
Good understand issues related to rare earths, to also bring down the myth of their rarity. Indeed, they are all more abundant than gold or silver in the Earth’s crust, and their name actually reflects a relative rarity in the minerals in which they are present (i.e. in low concentrations). Can thus find the lanthanides in more than 200 minerals, but only five of them have in sufficient quantities to be economically recoverable.
Global reserves are estimated by the Institute of geological studies of the United States (USGS) to about 114 million tons, or more than 800 years of insured if consumption the current level of demand should continue. Among these resources, 48% belong to China, 17% to the CIS, 11% in the United States, 3% to the India and 1.4% in the Australia. The remaining 19% are divided between Canada, Greenland, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Malawi, Viet Nam, Thailand, the Indonesia and a handful of other countries.
China therefore holds almost half of the world’s reserves, but its role goes well beyond since the ancient empire of the Middle performs several years more than 95% of the world production. The two main sources of the country are the mine of Bayan Obo, Inner Mongolia, and the reserves of clays of ion adsorption on the coast of Guangdong (South-East). The second deposit is extremely rich in so-called rare earths ‘heavy’, i.e. those from gadolinium to lutetium, which are less widely used and the most requested; so that Beijing could hold up to 80% of the world reserves for these elements in particular.
Among all the other countries that have rare earths, only the India, the Brazil and the Malaysia produce consistently, with in addition, since this year, the United States and Australia, but still in very small proportions.