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Rare-Earth Elements (REE)

In late September 2010 the Chinese government blocked exports to Japan of rare-earth elements (REE) in retaliation for Japan's detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, further escalating the Senkaku Island dispute. The New York Times reported the export ban extended to "... rare earth oxides, rare earth salts or pure rare earth metals, although the shipments are still allowed to go to Hong Kong, Singapore and other destinations. But no ban has been imposed on the export to Japan of semi-processed alloys that combine rare earths with other materials." In late November 2010 China resumed exports of crucial minerals to Japan for the first time in almost two months.

Rare Earths are a moderately abundant group of 15 metallic elements known as the Lanthanide series (atomic numbers 57 through to 71) plus Yttrium (39). Although Scandium (atomic number 21) is not a Rare Earth element, it is commonly included with the Lanthanides because of its similar properties. Rare Earths include cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. Rare earths are often classified into two groups: Heavy Rare Earth (HREE), and Light Rare Earth (LREE), according to their atomic weights and location on the periodic table.

In November 2019 the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China raised its annual rare-earth mining quota to 132,000 tons, 10 percent more than last year's level and a new record high. While the move alleviates concerns that China, the world's largest supplier of rare-earth minerals, may cut supplies, some critics believe that by raising the quota, China has actually made it more difficult for the US and other countries to develop their own rare-earth industries. The importance and strategic significance of rare earths is self-evident, but it should be made clear that China is not trying to contain the rare-earth industry of any country with its advantageous position. Unlike the US, China never resorts to containment as its strategy to any potential competition.

It is no secret that the excessive reliance of the US on China's rare-earth supplies is a form of leverage that China has in the trade war with the US. China controls at least 85 percent of the world's rare-earth processing capacity, according to research firm Adamas Intelligence. Over the years, the US sourced about 80 percent of its rare-earth imports from China. China may not need to play the rare-earth card for the time being, but it is still essential to keep vigilant and to ensure the deterrent effect of this crucial bargaining chip. It is not just pricing or quantity that gives China its grip on the rare-earth supply chain. Over the decades, China has paid great environmental costs and spent heavily in developing a clean and efficient rare-earth processing technology system.

Rare earths are not rare. But they are expensive, and separating them from ore is costly. Some rare earth minerals are accompanied by radioactive products, such as thorium and radium, which make extraction difficult and costly, since they pose the risk of radiation leaks. Most rare earth elements are widely distributed in the Earth's crust. Indeed the abundance of rare earths in the Earth's crust is higher than that of some major industrial metals. Even the least abundant rare earths are found in greater quantities than, for example, bismuth and cadmium.

The rare earths' unique properties are used in a wide variety of applications. Lanthanum (atomic number 57) is used in batteries. Neodymium (atomic number 60) is used in magnets for electric motors. Europium (atomic number 63) is used in colored phosphors and lasers. Rare earth metals are also used in manufacturing energy-efficient windows and in capacitors, sensors and scintillators used in electricity transmission. Rare-earth elements are key components of the green energy technologies and other high-technology applications. Some of the major applications include hybrid automobiles, plug-in electric automobiles, advanced wind turbines, computer hard drives, compact fluorescent light bulbs, metal alloys, additives in ceramics and glass, petroleum cracking catalysts, and a number of critical military applications. Some of these applications rely on permanent rare earth magnets that have unique properties, such as the ability to withstand demagnetization at very high temperatures.

Many REE applications are highly specific and substitutes are inferior or unknown:

  • Europium is employed as the red phosphor in color cathode-ray tubes and liquid-crystal displays used in computer monitors and televisions.
  • Terbium is used to make green phosphors for flat-panel TVs and lasers
  • Lanthanum is critical to the oil refining industry, which uses it to make a fluid cracking catalyst that translates into a 7% efficiency gain in converting crude oil into refined gasoline
  • Neodymium is key to the permanent magnets used to make high-efficiency electric motors. Two other REE minerals - terbium and dysprosium - are added to neodymium to allow it to remain magnetic at high temperatures
  • Erbium doped fiber are used in fiber-optic cables that can transmit signals over long distances because they incorporate periodically spaced lengths of that function as laser amplifiers
  • Cerium oxide is used as a polishing agent for glass. Virtually all polished glass products, from ordinary mirrors and eyeglasses to precision lenses, are finished with CeO2
  • Gadolinium is used in solid-state lasers, computer memory chips, high-temperature refractories, cryogenic refrigerants
Rhenium is the chemical element with atomic number 75. In part due to its very high melting point, rhenium is a critical component in nickel-based "superalloys" which are capable of functioning under very high stress. These superalloys are used in the jet engines of military aircraft and some of the world's most energy-efficient gas turbines. However, rhenium is very rare. It is a byproduct from copper ores, but on average 120 tons of copper are needed to produce 30 grams of rhenium. In recent years, as rhenium's use in turbine blades and other applications has grown, its price has increased sharply. The price of samarium, used in military applications such as missile motors, tripled between July and September 2010, to $32 a pound.

Where rare earth materials are used in defense systems, the materials are responsible for the functionality of the component and would be difficult to replace without losing performance. For example, fin actuators used in precision-guided munitions are specifically designed around the capabilities of neodymium iron boron rare earth magnets. The DDG-51 destroyer Hybrid Electric Drive Ship Program uses permanent-magnet motors using neodymium magnets from China. The Aegis Spy-1 radar, which is expected to be used for 35 years, has samarium cobalt magnet components that will need to be replaced during the radar's lifetime. Future generations of some defense system components, such as transmit and receive modules for radars, will continue to depend on rare earth materials.

DOD has been involved in efforts to transform the National Defense Stockpile so that materials not produced domestically will be available to support defense needs. A 2009 National Defense Stockpile configuration report identified lanthanum, cerium, europium, and gadolinium as having already caused some kind of weapon system production delay and recommended further study to determine the severity of the delays. Air Force's Materials and Manufacturing Directorate examined the availability of rare earth materials and manufacturers of rare earth magnets in a 2003 internal report, which raised concerns about U.S. dependency on Chinese rare earth materials and U.S. industry's lack of intellectual property rights to produce neodymium iron boron magnets.

The principal economic sources of rare earths are the minerals bastnasite, monazite, and loparite and the lateritic ion-adsorption clays. The rare earths are a relatively abundant group of 17 elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides. The elements range in crustal abundance from cerium, the 25th most abundant element of the 78 common elements in the Earth's crust at 60 parts per million, to thulium and lutetium, the least abundant rare-earth elements at about 0.5 part per million. The elemental forms of rare earths are iron gray to silvery lustrous metals that are typically soft, malleable, and ductile and usually reactive, especially at elevated temperatures or when finely divided.

The United States once was largely self-sufficient in these critical materials, but over the past decade has become dependent upon imports. In 1999 and 2000, more than 90% of REE required by U.S. industry came from deposits in China. China currently produces more than 95% of the 120,000-130,000 metric tonnes of rare-earths consumed annually worldwide. The rare-earth market is growing rapidly, and is projected to accelerate if the green technologies are implemented on a broad scale.

The lack of a domestic supply of rare earth minerals could severely affect the U.S.'s ability to manufacture advanced-technology products. A rare earth supply shortage would present a threat notably to the emerging clean energy industry but also to the telecommunications and defense sectors. U.S. supplies are also strained by the continual discovery of new applications and our national effort to ramp up industries that depend on rare earths, such as clean energy technologies.

In 2008, China's Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR ) issued the national plan on mineral resources (2008-15). In 2008, the production targets for rare earths were 87,620 tons. A set of production quotas was assigned to each Province. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) set the national production quota for rare earths at 110,700 t in 2009, which was higher than that set by the MLR. During the past several years, the actual outputs of rare earths were higher than the MLR quota. The MIIT rare-earth quota appeared to be more reflective of the actual output of the country. In 2008, local governments were in charge of allocating quotas to rare-earth producers. The MIIT was established in 2008 during the restructuring of the State Council and it appeared that there was a lack of communication between the MIIT and the MLR about which agency should assign the national rare-earth production quota. Nei Mongol Autonomous Region accounted for more than 50% of the total allocation followed by Sichuan Province, Jiangxi Province, and Guangdong Province.

Between 2005 and 2008, 91 percent of U.S. consumption of rare earths came from China and 9 percent from other sources, according to the US Geological Survey. China is reducing exports of rare earth materials and is working to leverage its deposits to bring the manufacture of the high-value-added products containing rare earths to China's Inner Mongolia region. China's longstanding quotas on rare earth exports have become increasingly tight, as China seeks to expand its alloy industry to create higher-paying jobs, instead of exporting raw materials for initial processing.

Terence P. Stewart noted that "What China is doing on rare earth minerals mirrors what it is doing on a large number of other raw materials: reducing availability of supply for global customers and/or making purchases more expensive through the imposition of export duties, export licenses, etc. The objective can be to encourage foreign investors to move investment to China to produce downstream products in the Middle Kingdom versus overseas, or to ensure low priced supplies for sectors in China targeted for rapid industrial growth."

Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth's crust, but discovered minable concentrations are less common than for most other ores. U.S. and world resources are contained primarily in bastnäsite and monazite. Bastnäsite deposits in China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world's rare-earth economic resources, while monazite deposits in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States constitute the second largest segment. Apatite, cheralite, eudialyte, loparite, phosphorites, rare-earth-bearing (ion adsorption) clays, secondary monazite, spent uranium solutions, and xenotime make up most of the remaining resources. Undiscovered resources are thought to be very large relative to expected demand.

The United States continued to be a major consumer, exporter, and importer of rare-earth products in 2009. The estimated value of refined rare earths imported by the United States in 2009 was $84 million, a decrease from $186 million imported in 2008. Based on final 2008 reported data, the estimated 2008 distribution of rare earths by end use, in decreasing order, was as follows: metallurgical applications and alloys, 29%; electronics, 18%; chemical catalysts, 14%; rare-earth phosphors for computer monitors, lighting, radar, televisions, and x-ray-intensifying film, 12%; automotive catalytic converters, 9%; glass polishing and ceramics, 6%; permanent magnets, 5%; petroleum refining catalysts, 4%; and other, 3%.

In 2009, rare earths were not mined in the United States; however, rare-earth concentrates previously produced at Mountain Pass, CA, were processed into lanthanum concentrate and didymium (75% neodymium, 25% praseodymium) products. Rare-earth concentrates, intermediate compounds, and individual oxides were available from stocks.

Rare earth deposits in the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa could be mined by 2014. Economic assessments continue at Bear Lodge in Wyoming; Diamond Creek in Idaho; Elk Creek in Nebraska; Hoidas Lake in Saskatchewan, Canada; Nechalacho (Thor Lake) in Northwest Territories, Canada; Kangankunde in Malawi; Lemhi Pass in Idaho-Montana; Nolans Project in Northern Territory, Australia; and various other locations around the world. At the Mount Weld rare-earth deposit in Australia, the initial phase of mining of the open pit was completed in June 2008. A total of 773,000 tons of ore was mined at an average grade of 15.4% REO; however, no beneficiation plant existed to process the ore into a rare-earth concentrate. Based on the fine-grained character of the Mt. Weld ore, only 50% recovery of the REO was expected.

The main American rare earth mine, in Mountain Pass, Calif., closed in 2002, but efforts are under way to reopen it. The rare-earth separation plant at Mountain Pass, CA, resumed operations in 2007 and continued to operate throughout 2009. Bastnäsite concentrates and other rare-earth intermediates and refined products continued to be sold from mine stocks at Mountain Pass. Officials of the minerals and rare earth company that owns the Mountain Pass mine expect that by 2012 it will achieve full-scale production of mining and separating cerium, lanthanum,praseodymium, and neodymium oxides. The Mountain Pass facility does not currently have the full capability needed to refine the oxides into pure rare earth metals.

in 2006, Navy considered funding the Mountain Pass mine and processing facility under a Title III11 program to secure a domestic source of supply for rare earth materials but ultimately did not award a contract for that purpose as it lost interest in the project. Based on industry estimates, rebuilding a U.S. rare earth supply chain may take up to 15 years and is dependent on several factors, including securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies, and acquiring patents, which are currently held by international companies.

In the United States, the Bear Lodge Project is now at the advanced exploration stage and moving into evaluation, permitting, and eventual development and construction. Rare Element Resources Ltd (AMEX: REE & TSX-V: RES) is a publicly traded mineral resource company focused on exploration and development of rare-earth elements and gold on the Bear Lodge property, which is slated to become the United States' second primary rare-earths mine.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on rare earth materials in the defense supply chain as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Pub. L. No. 111-84), which required GAO to submit a report on rare earth materials in the defense supply chain to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and House of Representatives by April 1, 2010. Released on April 14, 2010, the GAO report on rare earth metals in the defense supply chain highlighted the near- term need for a sustainable supply chain of rare earths in the United States, both for critical American national defense and industrial applications.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) offered an amendment he has to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 to require the Department of Defense to develop a plan for establishing a domestic rare earth magnet capability. It requires the Department of Defense to develop a plan for establishing a domestic neodymium iron boron magnet capability, and submit it to the congressional defense committees.

On 22 September 2010 Rep. Kathleen Dahlkemper [D-PA3] introduced H.R. 6160 "To develop a rare earth materials program, to amend the National Materials and Minerals Policy, Research and Development Act of 1980, and for other purposes." DOD is assessing its dependency on rare earth materials and is planning to complete its study by the end of September 2010. DOD has not yet identified national security risks or taken department-wide action to address rare earth material dependency.

In 2008, DOD Industrial Policy conducted an initial inquiry of DOD departments and agencies to identify strategic and critical materials required for national defense purposes. Although respondents identified a range of systems and components whose production could potentially be delayed due to a lack of availability of rare earth materials, DOD officials stated that this information was not based on a formal study on the use of rare earth materials in these systems.

The Department of Energy has several research and development efforts to develop non-rare-earth material-dependent motors, reduced rare earth material usage in magnets, and alternatives to rare earth dependent wind generators. In addition, the department has announced that it will develop a strategic plan for addressing the role of rare earth and other strategic materials in clean energy technologies. In a 17 March 2010 speech, Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy & International Affairs David Sandalow announced that DOE is developing its first-ever strategic plan concerning rare earth metals and other materials in energy components, products and processes. Assistant Secretary Sandalow said, "Clean energy technologies create jobs, cut costs and reduce pollution. The information we're requesting today will help guide the Department of Energy as it helps shape a clean energy future."

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Page last modified: 02-12-2019 18:06:37 ZULU