Rare earths are not as commonly talked about as other elements like oxygen, carbon, or nitrogen, but scientists have been studying these elements for decades due to their impressive magnetic, heat-resistant, and conductive properties.
In fact, we’re surrounded daily by devices and products made with rare-earths elements, such as smartphones, batteries, and digital cameras.
Over the last years, there has been a considerable rise in demand, and consequently, in prices, for these chemical elements due to the increase of global industrial production.
Continue reading to find out more about rare earths:
What Are Rare Earth Elements?
Rare elements can be defined as a group of seventeen components that appear together in the periodic table, which means they’re chemically similar. They’re also known as “rare earth metals” and “rare-earth oxides” since rare earth elements are all metals.
These are Scandium (Sc), Yttrium (Y), Lanthanum (La), Cerium (Ce), Praseodymium (Pr), Neodymium (Nd), Promethium (Pm), Samarium (Sm), Europium (Eu), Gadolinium (Gd), Terbium (Tb), Dysprosium (Dy), Holmium (Ho), Erbium (Er), Thulium (Tm), Ytterbium (Yb) and Lutetium (Lu).
Where Do Rare Earth Elements Come From?
Most of the rare-earth elements were created in supernova explosions at the dawn of the universe, even before the planet Earth was formed. They can also be formed by volcanic activity.
By far, China leads rare-earths production globally, with 140,000 MT, which counts for more than 90% of the global production.
Next in the line is the United States with 38,000 MT; Myanmar, also known as Burma with 30,000 MT; Australia with 17,000 MT; Madagascar with 8,000 MT; India with 3,000 MT; Russia with 2,700 MT; Thailand with 2,000 MT; Vietnam with 1,000 MT; and Brazil with 1,000 MT.
The United States currently only holds one rare-earth mining facility, located in San Bernardino, California.
Why are Rare Earth Elements Called Rare?
Even though they’re called ‘rare,’ they aren’t really rare. There are plenty of them all over the world. However, rare earth elements can only be found in smaller quantities, contrary to copper, for example, clustered together in veins.
The extraction and processing of these elements are challenging and expensive because they’re often chemically bonded with other substances, and they must be separated from them. They have to be dissolved and funneled through numerous liquid-containing chambers.
In addition to that, many deposits carry a radioactive element called thorium, which makes it much harder to separate rare earth elements, due to safety concerns.
What Are Rare Earth Elements Used For?
Rare earth elements have many uses in various areas and industries, such as high technology devices.
Neodymium, for example, is used in loudspeakers and computer hard drivers; Cerium is employed as a catalytic converter in cars; Lanthanum can be found in camera and telescope lenses; Gadolinium is utilized when making X-ray and MRI machines; Praseodymium’s most important use is in the making of aircraft machines; and many others.
They also are crucial for the making of military equipment, such as night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, GPS devices, batteries, and even jet engines, satellites, and anti-missile defense systems.