Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

Exploring China's domination of the rare earth elements market

Catalytic converter
Until global markets see a greater diversity of production, demand and supply, imbalances of some elements will likely continue.
Kevin Moran
Rare earth elements are vital to industry and various technologies, which is why, with sources scarce, support for the sector is imperative, urges RETA Director Kevin Moran…

Over the last decade or so, the term ‘rare earth elements’ (REEs) has entered the lexicon of manufacturers, policymakers, and even consumers. The term has become synonymous with high technology, due to the elements’ unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties. REEs – the 15 lanthanides in the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium – help many new technologies perform with reduced weight, emissions and energy consumption. In addition, products using REEs can have greater efficiency, performance, miniaturisation, speed, durability, or thermal stability. They are critical to many of the technologies we take for granted every single day.

Given these properties, you can easily imagine the myriad modern technologies that rely on one or more of these elements to achieve the level of performance we have all come to expect, such as: miniature microphones, speakers and electronic components in smartphones; modern lighting applications like compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs and LEDs; medical imaging devices like MRI and CT machines; electric motors and catalytic converters in cars; clean energy generation units like advanced wind turbines; and modern avionics. REEs are used in so many different applications it is impossible to name them all here. Western Europe is a major producer of many of these products, particularly fluorescent lamps, television screens and other electronics.

Of course, the use of REEs in these devices and manufactured goods is only part of the story. In terms of volume alone, the dominant uses of REEs are in the chemical, glass, petroleum refining and metal industries. For example, Western Europe favours use of higher-octane and diesel fuels and is increasingly limiting automobile and truck emissions. REEs, predominantly lanthanum and praseodymium, are used as fluid cracking catalysts to produce high-octane and diesel fuels, and cerium is used in automotive catalytic converters to help reduce emissions. In 2012, over 60 per cent of the REEs in Western Europe were used as catalysts. An additional 22 per cent were used for ceramics, polishing powders, metallurgical alloys and as glass additives.1

'Sourcing is important'


Unlike many other metals and chemicals, REEs are not publicly traded commodities. They are usually produced to specification for particular uses and customers. This means that sourcing is important, particularly for those who are two or three steps down the production chain. The final assembler may not even know that some components being used in their products contain REEs, and whether there are supply disruptions or sudden shortages of those particular elements.

Until global markets see a greater diversity of production, demand and supply, imbalances of some elements will likely continue.

The supply situation is exacerbated by the fact that there are currently few sources of REEs. In fact, China has been supplying 90 per cent or more of the world’s supply for over a decade. This wouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern, but for the fact that China is also, by far, the largest consumer (72 per cent in 2012) of rare earths.2 It is possible therefore, that in the not too distant future China could only produce enough of some elements to supply its own needs and could limit some exports. There are no currently operating rare earth mines in Western Europe and only one operating in the US (Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine). A rare earth mine is now operating in Australia, with associated processing facilities in Malaysia. The search for additional deposits of REEs continues around the globe, and there are a number of projects in various stages of exploration and development, including two in Sweden and one in Finland, among others. However, even the addition of a few new sources of supply may not resolve potential supply/demand imbalances. Until global markets see a greater diversity of production, demand and supply, imbalances of some elements will likely continue.3

Research and recycling


Locating and developing new supplies of REEs is only one piece of the puzzle. Vigorous recycling efforts, as well as research and development of alternative materials and/or more efficient use of existing materials, may also be employed to great effect. In fact, Western Europe is the site of two new rare earth recycling plants. One plant recovers phosphor powders from used CFL bulbs and processes them into rare earth concentrates. The other is a rare earth magnet recycling plant. Both are located in France. Additional research and development of recycling technologies, efficiencies in manufacturing, and, if necessary, the potential development of alternative materials is ongoing in laboratories around the world. These efforts must be accelerated.

International cooperation is essential to solving these issues, not only at governmental level but through non-governmental organisations (NGOs), research institutions and other associations. Given the importance of these elements to modern technologies, we all have an interest in their continued availability across the globe. Clearly, therefore, free trade is critical to manufacturing in Western Europe as well as to North America and Japan (the other major importers of REEs). Cooperation in research and development would help further our understanding of these elements, their properties and potential future uses, as well as possibly helping to solve supply issues. The US Department of Energy has recently designated Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University as a Critical Materials Institute, with responsibility for coordinating research on rare earths. The US government has committed $120m over the next five years for these activities. Hopefully, this will dovetail with research activities going on in Western Europe and elsewhere.

'Supporting growth and competitiveness'


Finally, there is a great need for private activities through NGOs or associations. Policymakers and other stakeholders need to understand the basic facts about REEs and the critical role they play in modern life. My organisation, the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), has taken on this role, aiming to provide all stakeholders – the news media, policymakers, regulators, manufacturers and users of rare earth technologies around the world – with comprehensive, science-based information about rare earths and their associated technologies. We invite others to join us in in supporting the growth and competitiveness of the rare earth market, as we look forward to many innovations yet to come.


1 Source: IHS Chemical estimates
2 Ibid.
3 Source: IMCOA, November 2012


Kevin Moran
Director
Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA)

www.rareearthtechalliance.com


[This article was originally published on 1st July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 02]


MORE ARTICLES FROM SCIENCE OMEGA REVIEW EUROPE ISSUE 2

Previous: Time to get ‘climate-smart’
Science Omega Review turns the spotlight on a new framework developed to help provide greater understanding in the UK about climate change...

Next: Rare earth elements
A long-term sustainable alternative for Europe...
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