TORONTO (Reuters) - Rare earths stormed into the public spotlight in 2010 over fears that China’s policy of curbing exports will cause global shortages.
In 2011, the game is shifting, as investors look for winners in the race to break China’s stranglehold on this tightly controlled group of high-tech metals.
Despite their name, the rare earths are a relatively abundant group of 17 chemical elements, but finding them in economically viable deposits is rare.
Here are some facts on rare earths and their uses:
There are 17 rare earth elements: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium and yttrium.
China produces about 97 percent of global supplies. The biggest single producer is Inner Mongolia-based Baotou Steel and Rare Earth Co. The United States and India both produce around 3,000 tonnes a year.
China, Japan and the United States. Global demand is forecast to grow rapidly as demand for green products increases.
Below is a summary of rare earth industrial applications and some key areas where they are employed:
MAGNETS - Currently, the most dynamic market for rare earths, with demand growing 15 percent annually for the past 10 years. Neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium are needed.
CATALYSTS - Petroleum cracking catalysts and auto catalysts use lanthanum and cerium.
PHOSPHORS - Necessary for the production of phosphors for television sets 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 among the least common rare earths.
GLASS AND POLISHING - Cerium is used in ultra-violet light filtering. It is also used in glass polishing, a rapidly growing sector that is based on the unique chemical and mechanical properties of cerium.
METAL ALLOYS - Nickel metal hydride batteries are the key driver of demand and could put pressure on lanthanum supply.
CERAMICS - Yttrium stabilized zirconia is used throughout the resources industry in applications requiring a material with high-wear resistance is required.
-Lanthanum for night-vision goggles
-Neodymium for laser range-finders, guidance systems, communications
-Europium for fluorescents and phosphors in lamps and monitors
-Erbium for amplifiers in fiber-optic data transmission
-Samarium for permanent magnets that are stable at high temperatures
-Samarium for precision-guided weapons
-Samarium for “white noise” production in stealth technology
Rare earth magnets are widely used in wind turbines. Some large turbines require around two 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, making them an important source of growth 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: Company websites, USGS, Thomson Reuters
Compiled by James Regan, Julie Gordon and Leonora Walet, edited by Frank McGurty