The Importance of Rare Earth Metals: a Beginner’s Guide

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A variety of rare earth elements represented in powdered form. Picture: Terence Wright, Flickr

A wise man once said, “Ladies and gentleman, this is Mambo no. 5!”

Ah, the ‘90s; the days of dodgy outfits, cheesy pop, and – most importantly – the Sony Walkman. Remember the trendy music player that accompanied you on public outings, feeding Lou Bega’s seductive voice into your ears as you recited, together, the numbers from one to five before parting ways?

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R.I.P. to the Sony Walkman family. You will be sorely missed. Gone, but not forgotten. Picture: nickcummins, Flickr

It was a bulky thing, that Walkman. Rather impractical, wasn’t it? But it was top of the range back in the day. Nowadays the­ Walkman has largely been forgotten about; music players are smaller with greater storage capacity thanks to improved technology, and the smartphones of today have consigned all but the most steadfast portable media players to retirement.

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The rare earth metals that go into your iPhone. Picture: Terence Wright, Flickr

This is, in some part, thanks to harnessing the power of rare earth metals. This group of highly malleable, superb-quality conductors consists of 17 elements, 15 of which are rare earth elements (the series near the bottom of the periodic table, from lanthanum to lutetium) along with a couple of adopted elements that behave similarly (scandium and yttrium). Rare earth metals have a variety of roles to play in these new electronic gadgets: a whole host of them are accountable for the colours in your smartphone screen, some are used as magnets in the speaker and microphone systems, while others are responsible for the vibrating unit.

But that’s not all that they’re good for. Aside from our trendy gadgets, these elements are at the heart of the technological revolution. You’ll find them in wind turbines, catalytic converters, computer hard drives, MRI scanners and electric car batteries, to name a few. And despite their misleading name, they are not actually that rare; even one of the least abundant members, thulium, has an average concentration in the crust of over one hundred times that of gold.

So, what’s the problem? Well, while rare earth metals can be found across the globe, in most areas they simply don’t occur in high enough concentrations for commercial extraction to be viable. The Bayan Obo mining district in northern China is one area where rare earth metals are abundant. In fact, more than their fair share – 75% of the world market (2014) – are extracted from here, giving China a near monopoly on global rare earth supply.

It was the 1980s and ‘90s when China’s rare earth metals really made an impact on the world stage. Low prices, due to cheap labour and lax environmental regulations, provided an all-you-can-eat buffet for western consumers. Competition was limited, as the higher costs associated with tough environmental regulations abroad discouraged investment elsewhere; countries instead were happy to buy the finished rare earth components, allowing China to advance its position with little challenge from overseas.

Fast-forward to early 2010. China has flexed its muscles, supplying 97% of the world market for rare earth metals. The USA, market leader from 1960 to 1990, has no mines in operation – its most profitable mine, Mountain Pass (owned by Molycorp), ceased production in 2002. The world has also woken up to the environmental woes associated with Chinese rare earth metal mines – a ‘tailings’ lake in the region, where refineries that process the rare earth metals dump their waste, would later be described as an “apocalyptic sight” (2012). A 2006 study conducted by local authorities reported levels of radioactive thorium in soil near the lake of up to 36 times higher than the surrounding area; exposure to high levels of thorium can cause lung and pancreatic cancer.

In September 2010, China slashed the export quota for rare earth metals by 72%, including a two-month trade embargo against Japan in retaliation for the collision of a Chinese fishing boat with a Japanese coast guard vessel near a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea. This was ostensibly to ensure sustainability and curb environmental damage; at the same time prices skyrocketed, increasing between four and nine times the September 2010 prices by September 2011.

In response to the price spike, exploration and mining in other areas of the globe recommenced, as countries looked to reduce their reliance on Chinese rare earths; Mountain Pass (USA) was briefly back in production, as was Mount Weld (Australia). China’s share of world production declined from over 95% in 2010 to an estimated 75% in 2014. The supply crunch of 2010-2011 served as a wake-up call for governments, highlighting that future rare earth supplies are far from secure.

By the second half of 2011, however, the rare earth metal bubble burst, and prices fell sharply. Since then, prices – although still higher than prior to the crisis – have dropped by over 80% compared to their mid-2011 peaks. One of the most recent victims was Molycorp, who have (again) had to close operations at the Mountain Pass mine after filing for bankruptcy earlier this year.

What does the future hold? Well, considering that rare earth elements are a vital part of the green revolution, our thirst for them is only likely to increase in the long-term. The European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON) notes that, by 2017, demand is projected to increase by more than 20% compared to 2014, and could be 50% higher by 2020.

Perhaps spare a thought – next time you laud the wonders of renewable energy, or grin from ear to ear next time you post a successful Instagram selfie – for the unsung heroes. They are working behind the scenes, ensuring that our lives run smoothly. They keep our technological ambitions alive, and without them we may never have been blessed with that bulky Walkman in the first place.

James Davies