Rare Earth Elements

REE is verskeie elemente wat baie skaars is – let ook op waarvoor in watter toerusting word dit gebruik – selfone, rekenaars en ander toebehore… wanneer daar by ons mense ingebreek en selfs moord gepleeg word, word sekere items altyd gesteel!!! toevallig?  Dis moontlik goedkoper om hierdie artikels wat gesteel word weer te hergebruik as om die duur proses van mynontginning te volg (of albei).
If you have not heard of Lanthanides, do not feel bad because most other people have not heard of them either. They form a group called Rare earth elements consisting of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the Periodic Table of Elements. The Group is listed separately at the bottom of the Table in the header picture.  Starting with Yttrium, the names of the 15 Lanthanide elements are mouthfuls: Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Europium, Gadolinium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, and Lutetium. Scandium is an adjunct member.

periodic table of elements

The rare earth elements are all metals, and the group is also called the “rare earth metals.” They have many similar properties that often cause 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. You would be correct to say so what?  Read on to find out the applications of the rare earth elements.  Here are some of the uses of these elements (Source: P. Christmann, Procedia Engineering 83, 2014) and BBC, www.bbc.com):

Neodymium

This is used to make powerful magnets used in loudspeakers and computer hard drives to enable them to be smaller and more efficient. Magnets containing neodymium are also used in green technologies such as the manufacture of wind turbines and hybrid cars.

Lanthanum

This element is used in camera and telescope lenses. Compounds containing lanthanum are used extensively in carbon lighting applications, such as studio lighting and cinema projection.

Cerium

Used in catalytic converters in cars, enabling them to run at high temperatures and playing a crucial role in the chemical reactions in the converter. Lanthanum and cerium are also used in the process of refining crude oil.

Praseodymium

Used to create strong metals for use in aircraft engines. Praseodymium is also a component of a special sort of glass, used to make visors to protect welders and glassmakers.

Gadolinium

Used in X-ray and MRI scanning systems, and also in television screens. Research is also being done into its possible use in developing more efficient refrigeration systems.

YttriumTerbiumEuropium

Important in making televisions and computer screens and other devices that have visual displays as they are used in making materials that give off different colors. Europium is also used in making control rods for nuclear reactors.

There are also critical defense applications:

Lanthanum: night-vision goggles

Neodymium: laser range finders, guidance systems, communications

Europium: fluorescents and phosphors in lamps and monitors

Erbium: amplifiers in fiber-optic data transmission

Samarium: permanent magnets that are stable at high temperatures

Samarium: precision-guided weapons

Samarium: “white noise” production in stealth technology

An important application involves rare earth elements such as dysprosium, europium and terbium are quite rare, in high and fast growing demand; as they either are indispensable to the production of Fe-B-Nd (Dy) permanent magnets, the highest performance magnetic material currently being available at industrial scale, or to the production of phosphors essential to the production of fluorescent compact, energy saving, light bulbs and video displays.  Considering demand for these elements is increasing at 10% compounded annual growth rate, the question arises about their future availability (Source: P. Christmann, Procedia Engineering 83, 2014).

Who Holds the REE Reserves?

Needless to say, reliable supplies of the REE are required to continue the 21stCentury life style and standards.  A number of studies have been published about the available supplies and the geography of the REE mines.  US Geological Survey (USGS) publishes a Mineral Commodity Summaries annually.

Table 1 provides the USGS’s estimates of production rate and reserves of several countries.  China not only is the largest consumer of the rare earth elements but it holds more reserves than the other countries.  It has a whopping 30 times larger REE reserves than the USA.

Table 1 Estimated Production and Reserves of REE in the World
(Source: Mineral Commodity Summaries 2016, US Dept Interior, US Geological Survey, January 28, 2016. Click to enlarge the images.)

Estimated Production and Reserves

Figure 1 shows the evolution of the production of REE over the last 60+ years.  European countries are absent from the list of major producers or reserve holders.  Clearly, China has become the dominant producer of the REE while production by the US and other countries has dwindled (Figure 2) .  It would not be an exaggeration to say developed economies are at the mercy of the rest of the world because of the location of REE reserves.  Some of those countries like China and Russia are competitors and, at times, adversaries of the West.

Figure 1 Production Rate of Rare Earth Element from 1950 to 2015
(Source: Geology News and Information, http://geology.com, September 2016)

rare earth

Figure 2 Global Location of Rare Earth Elements Reserves
(Source: Duke Center for Sustainability & Commerce, based on US Geological Survey Mineral Summaries 2008-2011, https://center.sustainability.duke.edu)

Global Location of Rare Earth Elements

A collision between a Chinese trawler and the Japanese coast guard in September 2010 and arrest of the Chinese captain, flared up tensions between Japan and China (Source; East Asia Forum, www.eastasiaforum.org).  China reportedly suspended shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to the ship captain’s arrest. Japan’s massive high technology manufacturing is reliant on REE imports from China.  The issue was quietly resolved and ostensibly the shipment of REE was reinstated back to normal.  Some interpreted this incident as a clear evidence of the Chinese government’s willingness to wage economic warfare on the slightest provocation.  A lingering question has been: did China really embargo REE shipments to Japan in September 2010?

Two recent studies cast doubt on whether there was actually an embargo on exports to Japan and, if there was, whether this was linked to the Chinese trawler captain’s arrest. Analysis of Japanese port data from the Japanese Ministry of Finance shows that there was no uniform drop in Japanese imports of Chinese rare earths following the trawler collision. Similarly, a 2012 article in The Chinese Journal of International Politics cites Japanese and US news media to demonstrate that Japanese officials and businesses had been aware since mid-August 2010 of Chinese plans to reduce their worldwide rare earths exports.

The studies suggest any decline in rare earth exports to Japan in the latter half of 2010 was more likely the result of China’s earlier decision to cut worldwide rare earths exports. Chinese industry newspapers and magazines, such as Xitu Xinxi (Rare Earth Information), suggest that in July 2010, two months before the trawler collision, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced its decision to reduce China’s global rare earths exports by 40% in the second half of 2010. Articles in Xitu Xinxi in July and August 2010 acknowledge that this Chinese decision sent businesses and officials in Japan — China’s largest market for rare earths — into a panic, and by October 2010 the effects were taking hold (Source; East Asia Forum, www.eastasiaforum.org).

China’s total rare earths exports declined by 77% in 2010, according to Chinese industry magazine Jiancai Fazhan Daoxiang (Building Materials Development Guide), and global prices quadrupled. The price of one major rare earth compound, cerium oxide went from US$4.7/kg in April 2010 to US$36/kg in October.  There have been fluctuations in prices since 2010.  The long-term picture, however, has not changed substantially because China continues to produce REE at reduced rates.

The U.S. Department of Energy is anticipating a critical shortage of 5 rare earth elements necessary for green technology development and construction. These REE are neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.  It is believed that the United States and a number of other countries are beginning to stockpile their reserves of REE in anticipation of coming shortages (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Anticipated future shortage of Rare Earth Elements (Source: US Department of Energy, www.DOE.gov)

anticipated future shortage

China has managed to dominate the global REE market by virtue of low production cost. Cheap land, energy and labor minimize costs plus environmental damages are not factored into the cost of production.  The combinations of large reserves and inexpensive production expenses have placed China in an enviable position considering the rampant demand for the REE in the 21st century high technology products.

“There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China,” declared Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic transformation, in 1992.  Let’s hope the Chinese do not use their advantageous REE position as a tool for pressure and blackmail in conducting foreign policy in the future.

 

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Strictly speaking, they are elements like others on the periodic table – such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen – with atomic numbers 57 to 71. There are two others with similar properties that are sometimes grouped with them, but the main rare earth elements are those 15. To make the first one, lanthanum, start with a barium atom and add one proton and one electron. Each successive rare earth element adds one more proton and one more electron.

They’re much more abundant in the Earth’s crust than many other valuable elements. Even the rarest rare earth, thulium, with atomic number 69, is 125 times more common than gold. And the least-rare rare earth, cerium, with atomic number 58, is 15,000 times more abundant than gold.

In 2018, the cost for an oxide of neodymium, atomic number 60, is US$107,000 per metric ton. The price is expected to climb to $150,000 by 2025.    Europium is even more costly – about $712,000 per metric ton.

Other rare earths are also commonly used in electronic devices today. Neodymium, atomic number 60, for instance, is a powerful magnet, useful in smartphones, televisions, lasers, rechargeable batteries and hard drives. An upcoming version of Tesla’s electric car motor is also expected to use neodymium.

Demand for rare earths has risen steadily since the middle of the 20th century, and there are no real alternative materials to replace them. As important as rare earths are to a modern technology-based society, and as difficult as they are to mine and use, the tariff battle may put the U.S. in a very bad place, turning both the country and rare earth elements themselves into pawns in this game of economic chess.

https://earthsky.org/earth/what-are-rare-earth-elements

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The name “rare earth” is a historical misnomer, stemming from that when they first discovered, they were difficult to extract from surrounding matter. The USGS (United States Geological Survey) describes rare earth elements as “moderately abundant,” meaning that although they’re not as common as elements like oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron (which together make up 90 percent of the Earth’s crust), they’re still well dispersed around the planet.

The rare earth element of cerium, for example, is the 25th most abundant on Earth, making it about as common as copper. But unlike copper and similarly well-known elements, such as gold and silver, rare earths don’t clump together in single-element lumps. Instead, because of their similar chemical composition (15 of the 17 rare earth elements occupy consecutive places on the periodic table), they bond freely with one another in minerals and clays.

As the academic David S. Abraham explains in his book The Elements of Power, this makes for a grueling extraction process. To create rare earths from the ore that contains them, this material has to be dissolved in solutions of acids, over and over again, then filtered, and dissolved once more. “The goal is not so much to remove rare earths from the mix as to remove everything else,” writes Abraham.

Rare earth ore goes through these steps hundreds and hundreds of times, and for each new mining location, the concentration of the acids used has to be recalculated in order to target the specific impurities in the soil. To top it off, the whole process produces any number of nasty chemical byproducts and is radioactive.

The whole process is “expensive, difficult, and dangerous,” says former rare earth trader and freelance journalist Tim Worstall. He tells The Verge that, because of this, the West has been more or less happy to cede production of rare earths to China. From the 1960s to the ‘80s, the US did actually supply the world with these elements; all extracted from a single mine in California named Mountain Pass. But in the ‘90s, China entered the market and drove down prices, making Mountain Pass unprofitable and leading to its closure in 2002.

Worstall says there are many reasons production moved overseas. Some of these are familiar: cheap labor costs and a willingness to overlook environmental damage, for example. But there’s also the fact that rare earth production in China is often a byproduct of other mining operations. “The biggest plant there is actually an iron ore mine which extracts rare earths on the side,” says Worstall. This means that, unlike the Mountain Pass mine, producers aren’t reliant on a single product. “If you are trying to only produce rare earths, then you’re subject to the swings and roundabouts of the market.”

All this looks like it gives China immense power over the market, but the truth is the world is benefiting at China’s expense. Proof of this came in 2010 when China did actually start limiting rare earth exports because of a dispute with Japan. This threat to the supply chain caused prices to rise, and so investment flowed into new and old rare earth mining projects. Meanwhile, consumers of rare earths like Hitachi and Mitsubishi altered their products to use less of each substance.

In other words, when China tried to take advantage of its monopoly and limit supply, the rest of the world picked up the slack. As a think tank report on the fallout from the 2010 incident put it: “Even with such apparently favorable circumstances, market power and political leverage proved fleeting and difficult [for China] to exploit.” Markets responded and “the problem rapidly faded.” (Money even flowed back into Mountain Pass for a while, although the company in charge, Molycorp, collapsed in 2015 when rare earth prices fell back to 2010 levels.)

In a paper describing the Minamitori find published in Nature Scientific Reports, the Japanese suggest a hydrocycle could use centrifugal forces to quickly separate out a lot of the unnecessary materials in the sea mud. But this method is unproven.

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MORE INFORMATION

China and Greenland

Greenland China

Shenghe, Chinese and REE

 

 

 

 

 

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