Rare Earth Elements (REEs)
The rare earths are a group of 17 elements comprising Scandium, Yttrium, and the Lanthanides. The heavy rare earth elements, HREE. Light REE's are made up of the first seven elements of the lanthanide series – Lanthanum (La, atomic number 57), Cerium (Ce, atomic number 58), Praseodymium (Pr, atomic number 59), Neodymium (Nd, atomic number 60) Promethium (Pm, atomic number 61) and Samarium (Sm, atomic number 62).
HREEs are made up of the higher atomic numbered elements – Europium (EU, atomic number 63), Gadolinium (Gd, atomic number 64), Terbium (TB, atomic number 65), Dysprosium (Dy, atomic number 66), Holmium (Ho, atomic number 67), Erbium (Er, atomic number 68), Thulium (Tm, atomic number 69), Ytterbium (Yb, atomic number 70) and Lutetium (Lu, atomic number 71).
REEs with even atomic numbers have greater abundance than their odd numbered cousins. LREEs are more incompatible with other minerals and this makes them more strongly concentrated in the earth's crust than the HREEs. In most rare earth deposits, the first four REE – La, Ce, Pr, and Nd – constitute 80 to 99 percent of the total.
REEs occur in a wide range of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks and in a broad range of mineral types including halides, carbonates, oxides and phosphates. But REE deposits are most commonly associated with late-stage vein and replacement mineralization either within carbonatites or the surrounding host rock. Most carbonatites are intrusive igneous rocks, this means that the rock masses contain more than 50% carbonate minerals, and cooled from a melt.
According to the geological literature there are about 600 known occurrences of carbonatites worldwide, but almost all are small and noncommercial.
The principal economic sources of rare earths are the minerals bastnasite, monazite, and xenotime. Bastnasite and monazite are the primary source of LREE (Ce,La,and Nd) with monazite containing less La, more Nd and some HREE. Xenotime is dominated by the heavier HREE including y, Dy, Er, Yb, and Ho.
The bulk of the world's supply of rare earth elements comes from the mineral bastnasite. Bastnasite is a mixed lanthanide fluoro-carbonate mineral (Ln F CO3) that's found in carbonatites.
Monazite, the single most common REE mineral generally contains elevated levels of thorium (Th). Thorium itself is only weakly radioactive but is accompanied by highly radioactive products like radium that can accumulate during processing.
Many REE applications are highly specific and substitutes are inferior or unknown:
- Color cathode-ray tubes and liquid-crystal displays used in computer monitors and televisions employ europium as the red phosphor
- Terbium is used to make green phosphors for flat-panel TVs and lasers
- Lanthanum is critical to the oil refining industry, which uses it to make a fluid cracking catalyst that translates into a 7% efficiency gain in converting crude oil into refined gasoline
- Rechargeable batteries
- Automotive pollution control catalysts
- Neodymium is key to the permanent magnets used to make high-efficiency electric motors. Two other REE minerals – terbium and dysprosium – are added to neodymium to allow it to remain magnetic at high temperatures
- Fiber-optic cables can transmit signals over long distances because they incorporate periodically spaced lengths of erbium doped fiber that function as laser amplifiers
- Cerium oxide is used as a polishing agent for glass. Virtually all polished glass products, from ordinary mirrors and eyeglasses to precision lenses, are finished with CeO2
- Gadolinium is used in solid-state lasers, computer memory chips, high-temperature refractories, cryogenic refrigerants
- Used in improving high-temperature characteristics of iron, chromium, and related alloys
- Y, La, Ce, Eu, Gd, and Tb are used in the new energy-efficient fluorescent lamps. These energy-efficient light bulbs are 70% cooler in terms of the heat they generate and are 70% more efficient in their use of electricity
- REEs are used in metallurgy as an alloying agent to desulphurise steels, as a nodularising agent in ductile iron, as lighter flints and as alloying agents to improve the properties of superalloys and alloys of magnesium, aluminium and titanium
- Rare-earth elements are used in the nuclear industry in control rods, as dilutants, and in shielding, detectors and counters
- Rare metals lower the friction on power lines, thus cutting electricity leakage
Rare earths are not listed on a metals exchange and there is no set or official price for REEs or their compounds. The buying and selling of REEs happens on a company-to-company basis. Essentially they are traded one deal at a time.
China has 53 percent of the world's REE deposits and supplies 97 percent of the global demand for rare earth elements.
Tighter limits on production and lowered export quotas are being put in place to ensure China has the necessary supply for its own technological and economic needs.
China's export quota has been decreasing. In 2006 volume dropped to 48,000 tonnes. In 2007 volume dropped to 43,574 tonnes, in 2008 volume dropped to 40,987 tonnes and in 2009 to 33,300 tonnes.
In a hunt to secure jobs, and access to advanced technologies, the Chinese have forced manufacturers needing access to REEs to make their products in China.
In the last 10 years the global market for rare earth elements has grown to 125,000 tons per year and by 2014 demand is predicted to reach 200,000 tons per year. Many experts are predicting that the Chinese will be internally consuming most of their own rare earth production by about 2014.
There is an indispensable, unarguable need for rare earths in our modern society. Demand is growing, the supplier of 97 percent of this demand is lowering export quotas and might very well stop all REE exports by 2014.
Without REEs, today's technology would take a twenty year step back in time. Are REEs and the companies looking for, finding and developing REE deposits on your radar screen?
If not maybe they should be.
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