We May Soon Be Talking About Rare Earths Less Rarely

Purple fluorite and reddish-brown bastnasite in white quartz from a rare earth deposit in Canada. Image courtesy flickr user subarticmike.

It’s not often that chemical issues drive international politics. But China’s recent decision to temporarily halt most of its production of rare earth elements has been a hot news topic. What’s all the fuss about?

The rare earth elements include the fifteen lanthanides, from lanthanum to lutetium, plus scandium and yttrium, which share similar chemical properties to the lanthanides. These elements are widely used in modern electronics, fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid vehicles and other green energy products. For example, the elements neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy) are used to make very strong permanent magnets, which are used in wind turbine generators. And erbium (Er) is used as an amplifier for transmitting information through fiber optics. In other words, these materials are integral to our modern way of life.

China produces approximately 97% of the world’s rare earth elements, and the production halt there has exposed our dependence on a global rare earths supply chain. With prices for the rare earth elements soaring, industries around the world are beginning to feel the pinch. An article in the New York Times recently put it this way: “If the rate of inflation on the rare earth element europium oxide were applied to a $2.00 cup of coffee, the new cost would be $24.55.”

But what can be done about the shortage? These elements are rare, right? Despite the moniker, rare earths are actually not rare. Neodymium is about as abundant in the earth’s crust as cobalt. In fact, rare earth deposits exist in the United States. The mining company Molycorp recently announced the discovery of a deposit of heavy rare earths near one of their current sites at Mountain Pass, CA. This discovery marks an important step in reducing the United States’ dependence on rare earth imports.

A sustainable domestic supply chain of rare earths is still a long way off. Due to the chemical similarities between the rare earths their separation is quite difficult. Advances in the fundamental chemistry of these elements are needed to reduce the costs of their isolation. But the promise of better rare earths separations chemistry is also the promise of cheaper raw materials, cheaper magnets, and cheaper wind power.

Eric J. Schelter is an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of The Schelter Group, whose research includes rare earths separations. Justin Bogart is a second-year graduate student and member of the group. A full-length interview with Professor Schelter about rare earths will be featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Chemical Heritage.

China Consolidates Control of Rare Earth Industry [New York Times]
Molycorp to Announce Rare Earth Deposit at California Site [New York Times]

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