CODEX Entry 8008: Rare Earths
The rare earths are a group of 17 elements composed of scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides.The principal economic sources of rare earths are the minerals bastnasite, monazite, and loparite and the lateritic ion-adsorption clays. The elements range in 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 elements at about 0.5 part per million.
Until 1948, most of the world’s rare earths were sourced from India and Brazil. Through the 1950s, South Africa was the world’s rare-earth source. Through the 1960s until the 1980s, the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California made the United States the leading producer. Today, the Indian and South African deposits still produce some rare-earth concentrates, but these are dwarfed by Chinese production. In 2017, China produced 81% of the world’s rare-earth supply, mostly in Inner Mongolia, although it had only 36.7% of reserves. All of the world’s heavy rare earths, such as dysprosium, come from Chinese rare-earth sources.
As Rare Earths are used extensively in technology, increased demand has strained supply, and there is growing concern that the world may soon face a shortage of the rare earths. These new products are equipment such as smartphones, digital cameras, computers parts, solar panels, and military equipment.
China has announced regulations on exports and a crackdown on smuggling. Since 2009, China has continued to reduce its export quota. In 2011, China halted production of three of its eight major rare-earth mines, responsible for almost 40% of China’s total rare-earth production.In March 2012, the US, EU, and Japan confronted China at WTO about these export and production restrictions. China responded with claims that the restrictions had environmental protection in mind. In 2012, China announced a further 20% reduction in production. The United States, Japan, and the European Union filed a joint lawsuit with the World Trade Organization against China, arguing that China should not be able to deny such important exports. As a result of the increased demand and tightening restrictions on exports of the metals from China, some countries are stockpiling rare-earth resources. Searches for alternative sources in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, Greenland, and the United States are ongoing. In 2010, a large deposit of rare-earth minerals was discovered in southern Greenland. The European Union has urged Greenland to restrict Chinese development of rare-earth projects there.
A significant reserve estimated at $1 Trillion was found in Afghanistan¹. Afghanistan is loaded with minerals deposited by the violent collision of the Indian subcontinent with Asia. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began inspecting what mineral resources after U.S.-led forces drove the Taliban from power in the country in 2004. Using Soviet geological maps in 2006, U.S. researchers flew airborne missions to conduct magnetic, gravity and hyperspectral surveys over Afghanistan, sometimes under enemy fire. More than 70 percent of the country was mapped in just two months.
The surveys verified all the major Soviet finds. Afghanistan may hold 60 million tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements, and plenty of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury and lithium.
In 2010, the USGS data attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), which is entrusted with rebuilding Afghanistan. Over the past four years, USGS and TFBSO have embarked on dozens of excursions in the war zone to collect and analyze mineral samples to confirm the aerial findings.
Continued sample collections involved helicopters, and for our safety, military escorts, as the teams couldn’t be on the ground very long to get samples.
The Afghan government has since signed a 30-year, $3 billion contract with the China Metallurgical Group, a state-owned mining enterprise based in Beijing, to exploit the Mes Aynak copper deposit, and awarded mining rights for the country’s biggest iron deposit to an Indian group.
As an example, amongst other uses, Gadolinium is used in lasers, X-ray tubes, Bubble computer memories, neutron capture, MRI contrast agent, and magnetostrictive alloys, positron emission tomography scintillator detectors, substrate for magneto-optical films, high performance high temperature superconductors, ceramic electrolytes used in solid oxide fuel cells, and oxygen detectors.
¹ Charles Q. Choi LiveScience Sept 2014