Rare Earth Elements and their Uses
The demand for rare earth elements has grown rapidly,
but their occurrence in minable deposits is limited.
M. King, PhD, RPG
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Earth Element Production: This chart shows a history
of rare earth element production, in metric tons of
rare earth oxide equivalent, between 1950 and 2020.
It clearly shows the United States' entry into the
market in the mid-1960s when color television exploded
demand. When China began selling rare earths at very
low prices in the late 1980s and early 1990s, mines
in the United States were forced to close because
they could no longer make a profit.  When China
cut exports in 2010, rare earth prices skyrocketed.
That motivated new production in the United States,
Australia, Russia, Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries.
In 2018 production data in Burma / Myanmar became
available and boosted the "others" category.
Prior to 2018, some production from Burma / Myanmar
may have been unreported. Graph by Geology.com using
data from United States Geological Survey Mineral
Commodity Summaries and other publications.
Are Rare Earth Elements (REEs)?
earth elements are a group of seventeen chemical elements
that occur together in the periodic table (see image).
The group consists of yttrium and the 15 lanthanide
elements (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium,
promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium,
dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and
lutetium). Scandium is found in most rare earth element
deposits and is sometimes classified as a rare earth
element. The International Union of Pure and Applied
Chemistry includes scandium in their rare earth element
rare earth elements are all metals, and the group
is often referred to as the "rare earth metals."
These metals have many similar properties, and that
often causes them to be found together in geologic
deposits. They are also referred to as "rare
earth oxides" because many of them are typically
sold as oxide compounds.
of Rare Earth Elements
earth metals and alloys that contain them are used
in many devices that people use every day such as
computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, cell
phones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent
lighting and much more.
the past twenty years, there has been an explosion
in demand for many items that require rare earth metals.
Twenty years ago very few people owned a mobile phone,
but today over 5 billion people own a mobile device.
 The use of rare earth elements in computers has
grown almost as fast as cell phones.
of Rare Earth Elements in the United States
Chemical Catalysts 75%
Ceramics and Glass 6%
Glass Polishing 5%
Metallurgy & Alloys 4%
(2020 data from USGS)
Many rechargeable batteries are made with rare earth
compounds. Demand for the batteries is being driven
by demand for portable electronic devices such as
cell phones, readers, portable computers, and cameras.
pounds of rare earth compounds are in batteries that
power every electric vehicle and hybrid-electric vehicle.
As concerns for energy independence, climate change,
and other issues drive the sale of electric and hybrid
vehicles, the demand for batteries made with rare
earth compounds will climb even faster.
earths are used as catalysts, phosphors, and polishing
compounds. These are used for air pollution control,
illuminated screens on electronic devices, and the
polishing of optical-quality glass. All of these products
are expected to experience rising demand.
substances can be substituted for rare earth elements
in their most important uses; however, these substitutes
are usually less effective and costly.
the 1950s until the early 2000s, cerium oxide was
a very popular lapidary polish. It was inexpensive
and very effective. The recent price increases have
almost eliminated the use of cerium oxide in rock
tumbling and the lapidary arts. Other types of polish,
such as aluminum oxide and titanium oxide, are now
used in its place.
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