Rare earth elements are
a group of metals that are critical ingredients for a greener economy, and the
location of the reserves for mining are increasingly important and valuable.
features data from the United States Geological Society (USGS) which reveals the countries with the largest known
reserves of rare earth elements (REEs).
are Rare Earth Metals?
REEs, also called rare
earth metals or rare earth oxides, or lanthanides, are a set of 17
silvery-white soft heavy metals.
The 17 rare earth
elements are: 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),
lutetium (Lu), scandium (Sc), and yttrium (Y).
Scandium and yttrium are
not part of the lanthanide family, but end users include them because they
occur in the same mineral deposits as the lanthanides and have similar chemical
The term “rare earth” is
a misnomer as rare earth metals are actually abundant in the Earth’s crust.
However, they are rarely found in large, concentrated deposits on their own,
but rather among other elements instead.
Earth Elements, How Do They Work?
Most rare earth elements
find their uses as catalysts and magnets in traditional and low-carbon
technologies. Other important uses of rare earth elements are in the production
of special metal alloys, glass, and high-performance electronics.
Alloys of neodymium (Nd)
and samarium (Sm) can be used to create strong magnets that withstand high
temperatures, making them ideal for a wide variety of mission critical
electronics and defense applications.
The strongest known
magnet is an alloy of neodymium with iron and boron. Adding other REEs such as
dysprosium and praseodymium can change the performance and properties of
Hybrid and electric
vehicle engines, generators in wind turbines, hard disks, portable electronics
and cell phones require these magnets and elements. This role in technology makes
their mining and refinement a point of concern for many nations.
For example, one
megawatt of wind energy capacity requires 171 kg of rare earths, a single U.S.
F-35 fighter jet requires about 427 kg of rare earths, and a
Virginia-class nuclear submarine uses nearly 4.2 tonnes.
Reserves of Rare Earth Minerals
China tops the list for
mine production and reserves of rare earth elements, with 44 million tons in
reserves and 140,000 tons of annual mine production.
While Vietnam and Brazil
have the second and third most reserves of rare earth metals with 22 million
tons in reserves and 21 million tons, respectively, their mine production is
among the lowest of all the countries at only 1,000 tons per year each.
While the United States
has 1.5 million tons in reserves, it is largely dependent on imports from China
for refined rare earths.
a Global Supply
In the rare earth
industry, China’s dominance has
been no accident. Years of research and industrial policy helped the nation
develop a superior position in the market, and now the country has the ability
to control production and the global availability of these valuable metals.
This tight control of
the supply of these important metals has the world searching for their own
supplies. With the start of mining operations in other countries, China’s share
of global production has
fallen from 92% in 2010 to 58%< in 2020. However, China has a strong
foothold in the supply chain and produced 85% of the world’s
refined rare earths in 2020.
China awards production
quotas to only six state-run companies:
Minmetals Rare Earth Co
Rare Earth & Metals Co
Northern Rare Earth Group
Southern Rare Earth Group
As the demand for REEs
increases, the world will need tap these reserves. This graphic could provide
clues as to the next source of rare earth elements.