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The Rare Earth Elements: An Introduction

The chemical properties of the rare earth elements make them difficult to separate from surrounding materials and from one another. These qualities also make them difficult to purify. Current production methods require a lot of ore and generate a great deal of harmful waste to extract just small amounts of rare earth metals. Waste from the processing methods include radioactive water, toxic fluorine, and acids.

The Rare Earth Elements: An Introduction

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Our increased understanding of the unique properties of rare earth elements has generated their expanded use in contemporary society. Rare earths are components in many familiar technologies, including smartphones, LED lights, and hybrid cars. A few rare earth elements are used in oil refining and nuclear power; others are important for wind turbines and electric vehicles; and more specialized uses occur in medicine and manufacturing. The rare earths have become crucial to modern life, but our dependence on them is mostly invisible to American consumers.

The challenge of separating the rare earth elements from ore and from one another made it unclear just how many rare earth elements there might be. In 1913, the British physicist Henry Moseley determined there were 15 elements in the lanthanide series (atomic numbers 57 through 71) using X-ray spectroscopy.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War (1945 to 1991) led to huge increases in government-funded research and development in many areas, including the rare earth elements. U.S. Air Force researchers developed samarium-cobalt magnets in the 1960s. This material retained its powerful magnetic properties even when very hot, thus making possible more powerful radar instruments. Soviet metallurgists used scandium to make aluminum stronger and lighter in the 1980s, which increased the performance of MiG-29 fighter planes. Laser research led to the development of yttrium-aluminum-garnet lasers used for laser rangefinders or target designators for guided weapons.

Use of rare earth elements in electronics expanded through the 1990s and the 2000s. In the early 1990s Bell Labs developed the erbium-doped fiber amplifier to boost the signal in fiber-optic cables. These small devices made possible a global network of long fiber-optic cables that reduced the price of long-distance telephone calls and now carry internet data around the world. The release of the first iPhone in 2008 showed how far advances in rare earth metallurgy and applications had developed. Smartphones use lanthanum to reduce distortion in their tiny glass camera lenses, neodymium magnets to improve sound from tiny speakers, and yttrium and erbium phosphors to make bright colors in an energy-efficient screen.

Beginning in the 1990s companies owned by the Chinese government sought to buy controlling shares in rare earth companies located in other countries. In 1995 two Chinese firms joined with American investors to buy Magnequench. This kind of foreign investment needed to be approved by American government regulators: they allowed the purchase but required the company to keep its operations in the United States for at least five years. Five years and one day later the factory was moved to China.

But the boom produced by high prices proved short lived. In 2012 a World Trade Organization grievance brought by the United States, Japan, and the European Union resulted in a loosening of Chinese export quotas, opening the flood gates and lowering prices to near 2009 levels. By 2015 it was once again difficult for anybody but the Chinese producers to make money producing rare earths. The bold plans for obtaining rare earths from around the world were mostly abandoned. Molycorp went bankrupt, and the firm that bought the Mountain Pass Mine now sends its semi-processed ore to China for final processing.

To meet future demand, mining companies have proposed opening new mines and building new processing plants in many parts of the world. Some plans sound like science fiction, such as deep-sea mining or extracting rare earths from the acidic wastewater draining from abandoned mines. But these production techniques might become economically viable if a large increase in demand drives up prices or if governments decide to subsidize the costs of production.

Another idea is to better design our technologies so we can reduce or more easily reuse the rare earth metals inside of them. In the wake of the 2010 crisis, car makers redesigned vehicles to use smaller amounts of rare earth metals. Consumer electronics could be designed to be more easily repaired and upgraded rather than simply discarded. Research into new methods to recover rare earths from electronic waste, for instance, could reduce the amount of metals that need to be produced by mining and refining. Governments, activist groups, and companies could also collaborate to collect wastes containing the rare earths to enable more economically viable recycling programs.

One looming question focuses on what decisions the Chinese government and Chinese producers will make. Planning documents show the Chinese government is interested in reducing the local pollution and harms caused by manufacturing rare earth elements. China may use its investments across the rare earth industry to move the dirtiest parts of production to locations outside of China but still under Chinese financial control, thus relocating the pollution to poorer countries.

Sustainable and socially fair production of the rare earth metals ultimately depends on the willingness of consumers and manufacturers to pay more for materials that are produced ethically. In addition mechanisms both inside and outside of governments must ensure that sustainable production methods are actually implemented.

This book deals with the rare earth elements (REE), which are a series of 17 transition metals: scandium, yttrium and the lanthanide series of elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium).

You have been invited to participate in an international Sustainability Summit convened to develop guidelines for a rare earth elements Sustainability Seal. During this Summit you will assume a role associated with the rare earths industry and will explore the many benefits and challenges surrounding the use of, and our dependency on, rare earth elements. In groups you will argue for your position on rare earth elements and propose additions and changes to the Sustainability Seal guidelines. The goal of the Sustainability Seal is to define practical and manageable criteria to address the issues associated with rare earth element production and trade while also accounting for the vital role these elements play in modern-day society. The Stewards will choose the set of guidelines that best addresses the underlying issues within the rare earth elements industry.

Prepare for your debate by watching the video in the Overview section above and reviewing the background materials listed below. They will help you understand the science and the history of rare earth elements, including their production, commercial use, and trade and the associated environmental concerns.

Abstract:The rare earth elements (REE) are vital to modern technologies and society and are amongst the most important of the critical elements. This special issue of Resources examines a number of facets of these critical elements, current and future sources of the REE, the mineralogy of the REE, and the economics of the REE sector. These papers not only provide insights into a wide variety of aspects of the REE, but also highlight the number of different areas of research that need to be undertaken to ensure sustainable and secure supplies of these critical metals into the future.Keywords: rare earth elements; criticality; critical metals; mineralogy; mineral economics

One less-visible supply chain is that of critical minerals, including the so-called rare earth elements (REEs). While a domestic supply for these materials is not yet established, rapid changes in the nascent national REE industry promise to give Texas a central role.

As the global economy continues to become more technologically advanced and sustainable, demand for REEs will grow. Supply chains must keep up. And with substantial rare earth deposits in our state, Texas businesses can help ensure that high-tech goods across the world are partially made with Texas dirt.

Several physical, magnetic and chemical methods can be used to separate and process the metals. First, the ore containing REEs must be milled and concentrated. Next, the concentrated ore is separated into rare earth oxides (REOs), a higher level of purity at which individual rare earth elements can be measured and traded as commodities.

Finally, REOs are processed into rare earth metals and are ready to be used in the downstream manufacturing of industrial and consumer goods, either on their own or mixed in alloys with other metals.[7]

China dominates the mining and processing of rare earths. According to the USGS, in 2020 China produced 140,000 metric tons of REO equivalents, or 58.3 percent of the global supply. The next-largest producers were the United States (38,000 metric tons of REO), Myanmar (30,000) and Australia (17,000).[8] While Brazil and Vietnam currently produce low quantities, each has more than 20 million tons of rare earth reserves.

For decades, the country has aggressively built its rare earth mining and processing industrial base, with production increasing by an average of 40 percent per year between 1978 and 1995.[9] During that time, China effectively shut out the rest of the world market for critical minerals by subsidizing the industry to discourage competition, taking advantage of lax environmental and labor laws, and restricting foreign investment.[10] 041b061a72


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