These pages are a project that I began, and continue, simply because I enjoy the topic and believe it to be important. This site is entirely a labor of pleasure, and thus must grow as time permits between my full time job and research obligations. My background is in archaeology, business, and planetary science, so please pardon any shortcomings in math or mining. My PhD is in planetary science, so this website may reflect my personal interest in large scale processes and systems. I hope that you enjoy reading this site as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Above all, I hope that you find it useful.
Thanks, and all the best to you, Robert Beauford
Thanks and Recommended Reading: Recommendation: If you have come to this site to learn about rare earth elements, I'd like to recommend a great piece of literature. Elements Magazine devoted their October 2012 issue entirely to the Rare Earth Elements. The issue is packed with solid overview articles and offers a first rate current bibliography. The magazine website is here: http://www.elementsmagazine.org/toc/toc_v8n5.pdf and the individual issue can be purchased here: https://msa.minsocam.org/backissues.html
Also, thanks to all of the people who have sent positive feedback on the site and who are using it as a starting place for research and as a portal.
Rare Earth Elements, Overview
Rare earth elements (REE’s) are a series of 17 elements that have widespread and unique applications in high technology, power generation, communications, and defense industries. These resources are also pivotal to emergent sustainable energy and carbon alternative technologies. Global use of rare earth elements in existing and emergent technologies is experiencing slow but steady annual growth.
The 17 Rare Earth Elements Figure 1: The Lanthanide Series plus Scandium and Yttrium
Several aspects of the global REE picture over the past decade have combined to create moderate supply versus demand instability. Demand for the materials is expanding, both to support ongoing applications as well for newly developing technologies (Humphries, 2010). Ore bodies are uncommon, however, and development of mines is slow and difficult. As a result, a small number of mines are producing the majority of the global supply. Rare earth elements, compared to many other important metals, are not particularly rare, but concentrations of rare earth elements in minable quantities are very uncommon. Geological concentration of these elements requires extraordinary natural sorting processes. (Long, Van Gosen, Foley, & Cordier, 2010) Exploration to locate these uncommon concentrations has been slow for several decades, and technological and physical construction relating to their refinement has been even slower. Decades of minimal global effort in research and development and an underdeveloped global REE mining industry further complicate the situation. Mining infrastructure and knowledge take years to grow, and volatility in prices has hurt new exploration and mining efforts.
Historically, demand for these materials has been relatively small, and has been easily filled by only a few mines. This has changed steadily in an increasingly technological world. Low cost export of the materials from China has, over the course of the last 20 years or so, eliminated what little resource development was taking place in the US and in other parts of the world. Less than a half dozen US or Canadian mining companies have any substantial REE development infrastructure, and the situation is far more limited in almost every other nation. Among those companies that are making substantial headway towards bringing new resources into production, market volatility and a several year decline in stock prices following intense speculation driven increases in 2011 has proven a consistent hinderance to development efforts. Compounding the situation, very little REE related geological research has been funded or performed in recent decades (Haxel, Hedrick, and Orris, 2007). This is true in terms of both basic scientific research on extraction and refining, as well as in terms of basic field work and resource exploration. Outside of China, few mining industry scientists have any specialized training or expertise in the REE resource field (Long et al., 2010). The last few years of slightly increased public awareness of the rare earth element sector has done a little, but not much, to change this.
The list of recently emerging technologies and industries that are potential or current users of rare earth elements is essentially a snapshot of modern technological society. This includes computers, wind power and other advanced post-carbon power generation technologies, fiber optic communications, lasers, LCD and CRT monitors and televisions, energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, GPS technology, microelectronics and sensors, CD and DVD drives, MPEG players, digital cameras, most optical lenses, audio components, most communications and entertainment devices, as well as satellites and satellite communications. The energy efficient high capacity rechargeable batteries that make possible technologies such as cell phones, portable computers, hybrid cars, and virtually every other electronic device that does not remain plugged directly in to a wall, also benefit from a sustained source of these materials. These are only a few of many possible examples. More uses for these materials emerge each year.
The chart below shows rare earth element production in 2009, and the situation has changed only a little since then. Current data, which can be found on page 128 at this link:http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2014/mcs2014.pdf shows that China's share of REE production has dropped from about 94% of the world total to about 90% of the world total. Though many recent news articles mention production from new mines around the world, most of this is pure fiction. Promises of abundant new resources from the sea floor and other new mines on land may or may not pan out with real production, and could take decades to do so, though several potentials hover just beyond the horizon, and there is still a good chance of new mine production from several companies with well developed mines on land.
Inexpensive resources from China have kept prices and supplies relatively stable for over 20 years, but this could change rapidly (Hedrick, 1998; Haxel et al., 2007). 2009 global production of all REE’s combined was only 126,230 metric tons. China, essentially the only global supplier, produced 120,000 metric tons, or over 95% of the total. With Chinese demand for REE’s growing at a substantial rate every year as their internal industrial and manufacturing demands increase, the country has balked at exporting ever increasing quantities of the resource.
126,230 metric tons may sound like a lot of metal but, for a significant resource metal, it is not. For comparison, according to USGS Mineral Yearbook statistics, world copper production in 2009 was over 15 million metric tons, and world aluminum production was over 49 million metric tons. 2010 world demand for rare earth elements was 134,000 metric tons, substantially exceeded supply. Existing previously mined stockpiles have made up the difference between supply and demand over the last few years, but growth in demand may exceed supply in coming years if mine production does not increase (Humphries, 2010). Bringing new in-ground resources into production requires years of effort and substantial investment, though several companies have substantial projects underway.
It should further be considered, that though they are found together, and are referred to by a common name, the term ‘rare earth elements’ represents 17 different metals. 80 to 99% of the production of most ore bodies comprises only 4 of these metals, La, Ce, Pr, and Nd. Several of the elements that have experienced the fastest demand growth are among those least represented in production volume (Haxel et al., 2006).
Challenges emerge in quantifying the historical mineral and commercial abundances of these elements because of their relative obscurity and lack of significant economic or technological importance prior to very recent history. Critical Chinese production records, for instance, are lacking in USGS government documents prior to 1997. It is entirely possible that these types of records did not exist, in any meaningful sense, until shortly before that date. In addition to the fact that government records lack quantitative detail, the metals are treated in aggregate in most economic and mineral industry publications, making changes in distribution of demand among specific metals similarly difficult to trace. Ironically, even for mineral and metal industry researchers and officials at the governmental level, it is easier to describe some things about the future of this industry than about its past. What we know is easily summarized:
Though China still produces greater than 90% of the world's REE supplies, only 36% of the proven global resources are located in that country, and several other nations appear to have larger resource bases, even with current levels of exploration. Time to market, however, is a major issue in considering proven reserves and previously mined deposits of these metals, and an even larger issue in considering unproven, but known, resources. Development time for proven reserves may be 5 to 10 years or greater, and development may require decades or longer for other deposits. Some mines are also dependent upon a more abundant ore co-product, such as iron, in order for production to be economically viable (Long et al., 2010).
Like many important technologies, REE resource development has complex environmental implications that are both positive and negative. Mining REEs produces all of the sorts of localized environmental disruption associated with digging large holes in the ground, and it produces, from some ore bodies, mine tailings that are somewhat high in radioactive elements that can be concentrated by the same geological processes that gather together minable quantities of REEs (Long et al., 2010; Hedrick, 2008). On the other hand, it provides rechargeable batteries, wind power generation, electronic media that reduce tree cutting and paper garbage, hybrid automobiles, fuel efficiency in gasoline vehicles, and hundreds of other energy efficient and increasingly ecologically responsible products.
Sustainability and the Global REE Supply
Development of a globally sustainable REE marketplace requires a multifaceted approach. This means recycling, reuse, substitution, expanded recovery, technological innovation, government incentives, and international cooperation.
Recycling and reuse, though they currently contribute only a tiny fraction to global annual metal production, have enormous potential. Several recent news stories have addressed ‘urban mining’ of used electronics to produce recyclable REE metals. Urban concentrations of used and disposed electronics may be competitive in productivity with some of the world's better mining centers! This is supported by documents produced by the Japanese National Institute for Materials Science. The world’s ‘garbage’ may eventually represent a substantial percentage of known global strategic metal resources.
Enhanced exploration and recovery are important mid to long-range options for improving the global REE resource base. Additional reserves are known, and according to the USGS, many more are suspected (Long et al., 2010). The US government is actively encouraging resource development. 5 pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress in 2010 (Humphries, 2010), and a number of US government educational documents were produced. To what extent these measures will be effective in making positive changes is not yet known.
Because the technological potentials from REE market development outweigh the benefits of providing smaller quantities at higher prices, assisting other countries in bringing REE supplies to market, through technology sharing, might also be considered as an option. National or international development strategies may also include development loans or loan guarantees, expedited industry permitting, government sponsorship of research and development programs, educational investments, and other industry support.
Individuals may act by choosing to responsibly recycle electronics, investing in the several strong emergent US, Australian and Canadian REE development companies, encouraging representatives and other elected officials to support REE related legislation and development initiatives, or becoming actively involved in the industry through educational or career choices.
Hedrick, James B. 1998. Rare-Earth Metals, Metal Prices in the United States through 1998, US Geological Survey. Available athttp://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/metal_prices/
Long, K.R., Van Gosen, B.S., Foley, N.K., and Cordier, Daniel. 2010. The principal rare earth elements deposits of the United States—A summary of domestic deposits and a global perspective: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report - 2010. Available athttp://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2010/5220/
Haxel G, Hedrick J, Orris J. 2006. Rare earth elements critical resources for high technology. Reston (VA): United States Geological Survey. USGS Fact Sheet: 087‐02. Available athttp://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2002/fs087-02/fs087-02.pdf
Cordier, D.J., Hedrick, J.B.. 2008. Rare Earths. United States Department of the Interior. United States Geological Survey. 2008 Minerals Yearbook. Available athttp://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/rare_earths/index.html#myb
Hedrick, J.B. (1997, 2002, 2007, 2010) Rare Earths. United States Department of the Interior. United States Geological Survey. (1997, 2002, 2007, 2010) Minerals Yearbook. Available athttp://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/rare_earths/index.html#myb
Humphries, Marc. 2010. Rare Earth Elements: the Global Supply Chain CRS Report For Congress September 30, 2010. U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service. 7-5700. R41347. Available at www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41347.pdf
Recommended Rare Earth Element Links
Why does this group of web pages exist?
These resource pages exists because the little known group of metals known as the Rare Earth Elements, or REE, have become critically important to a variety of emergent technologies. These technologies provide many of the best and brightest hopes for ending global waste, pollution, ignorance, and isolation. Wind power, hybrid cars, and other environmental technologies provide both clean alternatives to our current options, and the hope of a safe, clean, sustainable energy economy. Cell phones, satellites and other communications tools bring the world together. Portable computerized media are ending the destruction and disposal of millions upon millions of trees in the form of junk mail and newspapers. The list goes on. Perhaps the most important reality that has emerged, with our understanding of what these and other relatively new metal resources make possible in the world of high technology, is the rapid expansion of immediately available knowledge, information, and education. The entire world finally, and hopefully irrevocably, has access to all of the greatest teachers of history, as well as to the latest scientific, cultural, technological and educational progress in understanding. This is website is an expression of a belief that responsible advancements in technology can change the world for the better. It is also a reflection of a personal belief that the instantaneous global communication and sharing of knowledge, made possible by modern computers and communications systems (which are dependent upon REEs), reflects the greatest historical accomplishment of humanity, and one of our greatest hopes for the future.
The world no longer turns on single metals or simple technologies. An oversimplified, but essentially true, story of history states that the stone age was replaced by the bronze age, and that the bronze age was replaced by the iron age. The iron age, however, has come to an end, not with the age of industry, but with the emergence of something far more profound, the Age of Electricity. Today, complex alloys and even more complex circuitry make the material world sing, dance, and do wonderful tricks. At this moment in history, with the beginning of the understanding of real high-energy physics, chemical and electrical interactions, and with the beginnings of an understanding of what it is possible to do with the 117 atomic tools provided in the periodic tool kit, we are surrounded by a world that takes for granted abilities that are beyond even what people dreamed gods and magicians were capable of in the ancient world.
These web pages were constructed, in part, on a portable computer powered by a battery using REEs. The characters are displayed on a screen lit by REE related technology. The information is stored on DVD disks written with drives dependent on REE magnets to function. The information was sent out to the world through fiber optic cables that work because of REEs in lasers. The sattelites that brought the signal around the world, similarly, depended upon these materials. I appreciate your help in supporting global rare earth element exploration and development.