Rare Earth Elements (REE), may not be as popular a topic as other commodities and materials such as oil, natural gas, copper, silver, cotton, and corn, but they hold many of the same characteristics as a component of the global economy.
The 17 elements that make up the category of REEs have been a fairly ubiquitous component of the global economy for some time now, with wide-ranging applications in fields as diverse as medicine, nuclear science, oil production, military and computer technologies, and consumer goods. These increasingly crucial elements are called “rare” not because they are more scarce than their better-known counterparts such as iron ore and gold (quite the opposite is true), but because of the very expensive and labor-intensive processes required to extract them from the ground.
And, as is the case with all commodities and resources, the global REE market has its predictable geopolitical element. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping, then-leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was quoted as saying “The Middle East has oil and China has rare earth.” Indeed, China was well ahead of the game in recognizing how important REEs would become; as early as the 1960’s the government had likened them to the oil of the 21st century.
The contention was not far-fetched. The foresight of CCP leaders some five decades ago has resulted in the world’s most populous country also being in control of over 90 percent of global REE production. Technological advances in industry, goods, medicine, and military technology have only made rare earths even more important to global economy.
According to the US Geological Survey, China’s estimated 55 megatons of REE deposits is well ahead of second place US, with 13 megatons, and third-place India, with 3 megatons. The rapidly increasing global demand for REEs, coupled with the shortfall in supply, as well as the potentially volatile geopolitics that could develop as a result, make them a classic “strategic resource.”
The following is a list of all 17 Rare Earth Elements, accompanied by brief descriptions of their various uses:
Scandium – Found in substantial amounts in Scandinavian countries as well as Madagascar, scandium is typically added to aluminum in order to enhance the latter’s ability to resist heat, and as such is used for aerospace and military purposes. Scandium can also be found in consumer products such as bicycle frames and baseball bats.
Yttrium – Yttrium is used for a variety of purposes from LED screens to superconductors, and is also used as a component in various cancer treatments.
Lanthanum – Lanthanum is used in everything from medication, to camera lenses, but will certainly increase in importance with the rise of battery-powered and hybrid automobiles, being one of the most important elements in nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Cerium – Cerium is most commonly used in catalytic converters for automobiles because of its ability to reduce carbon emissions from exhaust fumes, but also figures into the production of iron and aluminum alloys as well as glass and magnets.
Praseodymium – Often found in cigarette lighters, and as a coloring agent in cubic zirconia, Praseodymium is also used as an alloying agent for metals in aircraft engines.
Neodymium – Neodymium is best-known for its use in powerful magnets of the type that can lift objects up to a thousand times their own weight, but is also found in sound equipment such as microphones, headphones, and speakers, as well as computer hard drives.
Promethium – Promethium is a crucial element in nuclear batteries.
Samarium – Samarium is used in nuclear reactors, and also contains a radioactive isotope that is an ingredient in treatments for severe pain resulting from bone cancer therapy.
Europium – Europium is found as a phosphor in LED and computer screens as well as florescent lighting. It also has medical value via its involvement in the process of screening for genetic diseases like Down Syndrome.
Gadolinium – Medical applications of Gadolinium include MRI imaging, but the element can also be found in nuclear reactors and X-ray systems.
Terbium – Terbium is used in naval sonar systems, but is more commonly found in color television tubes.
Dysprosium – Dysprosium is used in absorption robs in nuclear reactors, as well as hard disks for computers.
Holmium – Holmium can absorb neutrons expelled during the process of nuclear fission, but can also be found in microwave devices and medical equipment such as optical lasers. The element is also a vital component of very powerful magnets.
Erbium – Erbium is used in medical/dental lasers as well as fiber optic cables.
Thulium – Thulium is common to surgical lasers and portable X-ray machines, as well as high-temperature superconductors.
Ytterbium – Ytterbium is found in portable X-ray devices, and can be used to strengthen steel. Interestingly, it is also used in lasers and other devices that monitor ground conditions during and after earthquakes and other extreme events such as explosions.
Lutetium – Aside from experimental usage in cancer treatment, the extremely expensive Lutetium is important in the oil industry for its vital role in the hydrocracking process that removes heavy impurities from petroleum.
[Image: rare-earth oxides used as tracers to determine which parts of a watershed are eroding. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]