Rare Earth Elements and their Uses

Rare Earth Elements and their Uses
The demand for rare earth elements has grown rapidly, but their occurrence in minable deposits is limited.

Article by: Hobart M. King, PhD, RPG

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Rare 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. [1] 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.

What Are Rare Earth Elements (REEs)?

Rare 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 definition.

The 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.

Uses of Rare Earth Elements

Rare 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.

During 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. [3] The use of rare earth elements in computers has grown almost as fast as cell phones.

Uses of Rare Earth Elements in the United States
Chemical Catalysts 75%
Ceramics and Glass 6%
Glass Polishing 5%
Metallurgy & Alloys 4%
Other 10%
(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.

Several 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.

Rare 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.

Other substances can be substituted for rare earth elements in their most important uses; however, these substitutes are usually less effective and costly.

From 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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