Rare Earth Metals: Not So Rare, But Still Valuable

November 04, 2008

 

REM are now especially important, and used extensively, in the defense industry. Some of their specific defense applications include: anti-missile defense, aircraft parts, communications systems, electronic countermeasures, jet engines, rockets, underwater mine detection, missile guidance systems and space-based satellite power.

USGS figures for 2006 indicate that the three main uses of REM in the U.S. were: automotive catalytic converters (25%), petroleum refining catalysts (22%) and metallurgical additives and alloys (20%).

 

Source: USGS

 

In many of these applications, the REM are used in the form of low-cost compounds. As oxides, they are used extensively in the ceramics and glass industries and, in addition, for various metallurgical uses. Indeed, it has been estimated that only 25% of mined REM-bearing materials are actually processed to extract individual metals.

The REM most commonly used as separated metals are: cerium, europium, gadolinium, neodymium, samarium and terbium.

 

Rare Earth Metals Supply

From having been a major producer (and consumer) of REM (from the Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave Desert, Calif.) until the mid-80s, the U.S. now no longer mines any REM. The world's major producer is China (particularly from its Bayan Obo mining operation in Inner Mongolia), with considerably lesser amounts coming from Brazil, India and Russia. Since 2000, domestic REM consumption in China (which now accounts for over half of the country's overall REM products) has exceeded that of the U.S.

 

Global Rare Earth Metal Oxide Production - 1950-2006 (‘000s Tonnes)

Source: Russian Journal of Non-Ferrous Metals (from USGS)

 

While REM deposits in China and the U.S. are primarily to be found in the mineral bastnäsite (80-90% of all raw materials produced), elsewhere - and in particular in Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Thailand - they are usually to be found in the mineral monazite. (There are also monazite resources both in China and the U.S.) Mining monazite can, however, be a little tricky, as the ore tends to contain the radioactive elements thorium (see Cobalt: More Than Just Blue) and radium.

In addition, there are also REM-containing ion-absorption ores in the south of China. Importantly, these last contain around 80% of the world's known resources of the less-widespread heavy, yttrium group, metals.

 

World Mine Production (Tonnes)

Country

2006

2007

China

119,000

120,000

India

2,700

2,700

Brazil

730

730

Malaysia

200

200

Thailand

-

-

Australia

-

-

U.S.

-

-

Other Countries

NA

NA

Total (rounded)

123,000

124,000

Source: USGS

 

Although it mines no REM of its own, in 2007, the U.S. remained a major importer, exporter and consumer. From 2003-2006, China accounted for some 94% of its REM-related imports.

While not yet actually recommencing mining operations (for environmental, regulatory and market reasons), toward the end of 2007, Molycorp Inc. (wholly-owned by Chevron) resumed operating its rare earth separation plant at Mountain Pass. The company continues to sell bastnäsite concentrates and REM intermediaries, together with refined products, from its existing mine stocks. Permits to recommence mining are still pending.

 

Rare Earth Metals Demand

Domestic demand in the U.S., as well as the demand for REM globally, remained strong in 2007, and have continued so in 2008. This has been true both for mixed rare earth compounds and the metals and their alloys. According to the USGS: "The trend is for a continued increase in the use of rare earths in many applications, especially automotive catalytic converters, permanent magnets, and rechargeable batteries."

 

Forecast Growth Of Rare Earth Metals Usage

Element

Application

Consumption

(Tonnes p.a. of REO)

Growth Rate

(% p.a)

 

 

2006

2012

 

Ce, La, Nd, Pr

Battery Alloy

17,000

43,000

17

Dy, Nd, Pr, Sm, Tb

Magnets

20,500

42,000

13

Eu, Tb, Y

Phosphors

8,500

14,000

9

 

Ceramics

5,500

9,000

9

 

Others

8,000

13,000

8

Ce, Nd, La

Catalysts

21,500

32,000

7

Ce, La, Pr

Polishing Powder

14,000

21,000

7

Ce, Er, Gd, La, Nd, Yb

Glass Additives

13,000

14,000

1

 

Total

108,000

188,000

10

REO = rare earth oxide

Source: Roskill HK Rare Earth Conference, November 2007

 

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