(Reuters) - Rare earths have stormed to the forefront of global worries over fears that China’s policy of curbing exports will increasingly cause shortages in other industrialized economies, given its status as the dominant global supplier.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are a relatively abundant group of 17 chemical elements. They were originally described as rare because they were unknown in their elemental form and difficult to extract from the rocks that contained them.
Below is a summary of rare earth industrial applications and some key areas where they are employed:
Catalysts - Petroleum cracking catalysts and auto catalysts use lanthanum and cerium.
Glass - Cerium is the major constituent of this sector, where it is used in ultra-violet light filtering.
Polishing - A rapidly growing sector that is based on the unique chemical and mechanical properties of cerium in the polishing of glass, including multi-level electronic components. Metal Alloys - Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are the key driver of demand and could put pressure on lanthanum supply.
Magnets - Currently, the most dynamic market for rare earths with growth in demand increasing at 15 percent a year for the past 10 years, causing neodymium and terbium to increase by more than 40 percent over the past 12 months
Phosphors - Necessary for the production of phosphors for TVs and energy-efficient lamps. This is the smallest sector by volume (only 6-8 percent) but the largest sector by value (30-40 percent) as europium and terbium are amongst the least common rare earths.
Ceramics - Yttrium stabilized zirconia is used throughout the resources industry where a material with high-wear resistance is required.
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
Rare earth magnets are widely used in wind turbines. Some large turbines require two short tonnes of rare earth magnets. These magnets are very strong and make the turbines highly efficient. Rare earth magnets are used in turbines and generators in many alternative energy applications.
Every hybrid-electric and electric vehicle has a large battery. Each battery is made using several pounds of rare earth compounds. The use of electric vehicles is expected to increase rapidly, driven by energy independence, climate change and other concerns. This is a key growth area for rare earths.
Rechargeable batteries used in mobile phone and portable computers require rare earths. Rare earths were the key to smaller more efficient battery technology.
Source: Arafura Resources Ltd, USGS, Thomson Reuters
Compiled by James Regan, edited by Bill Tarrant