The Japanese call them “the seeds of technology.” The US Department of Energy calls them “technology metals.” They make possible the high tech world we live in today – everything from the miniaturization of electronics, to the enabling of green energy and medical technologies, to supporting a myriad of essential telecommunications and defense systems. They are the elements that have become irreplaceable to our world of technology owing to their unique magnetic, phosphorescent, and catalytic properties.
Which Elements are They?
Rare earth elements are a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. Scandium and yttrium are considered rare earth elements since they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties. While named rare earths, they are in fact not that rare and are relatively abundant in the Earth's crust. What is unusual is to find them in quantities significant enough to support economic mineral development.
With rare earths, a little goes a long way. The amount of rare earths used in high tech equipment is nominal but almost always critical to the unit’s performance. For example, an iPhone uses eight rare earths – for everything from its colored screen, to its speakers, to the miniaturization of the phone’s circuitry. While the amount of rare earths in each phone is very small, the quantity of phones sold each year is impressive. According to Apple, in 2012 over 125 million iPhones were sold worldwide, up from 72 million in 2011.
Where do They Come From?
China became the world's dominant producer of rare earths in the 1990s. Because China sold rare earths at very low prices, mines like Molycorp’s Mountain Pass in California and others throughout the world were unable to compete. By 2000, China accounted for more than 95% of world rare earth production.
China is also the dominant consumer of rare earths, which we use mainly in the manufacture of electronics products for domestic use as well as export. Japan and the United States are the world’s second and third largest consumers of rare earths. In 2010 and 2011, Chinese exports of rare earths fell, driven predominately by increasing domestic consumption. China also announced they may require imports by 2014 of certain rare earths, some that are deemed “critical” by the U.S. Department of Energy1
In a normal market, supply reductions would trigger price increases. At that point, new sources would be developed. The long lead time between discovery and production means there is no quick way to increase supply in the rare earth market. End-users are at a significant disadvantage by only having one major supplier. (Other sources are being developed, including the Bear Lodge Project, but none are currently in full production or can provide a full suite of all the rare earth elements.) These factors have resulted in a great deal of uncertainity in the market place and significant price volatility.
According to the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment2 of the National Intelligence Office, rare earths are “essential to civilian and military technologies and to the 21st-century global economy, including green technologies (e.g., wind turbines and advanced battery systems) and advanced defense systems.” This is why developing a domestic source, like the Bear Lodge Project, is critical.