India’s Rare Earth Industry
Of late, India’s interest on rare earth elements has increased to further its development and geopolitical interests. The renewed interest is due to China’s dominant position in the global rare earths industry.
What elements constitute rare earths group?
Rare earth elements are a set of seventeen chemical elements which include fifteen lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium. All the 17 elements have similar chemical properties. In terms of their overall abundance in the Earth’s crust, the rare earth elements are not particularly rare. Cerium (Ce) is the most abundant and Thulium (Tm) is the rarest rare earths element. Promethium (Pm) is virtually absent, since it is radioactive with a short life-time.
Why the rare earth elements attracting a lot of current interest?
Due to their distinctive properties, rare earth elements have several desirable properties that have use in a variety of high technology applications.
- They are important for manufacturing of key intermediates that are used in production of a number of green energy products such as hybrid cars, energy efficient lighting, fuel cells and windmills.
- Some of the intermediate industries that are dependent on rare earth elements are the glass industry, permanent magnet industry, phosphors used in lighting and display devices, catalysts for the oil refining industry, etc.
- Rare earth elements are also useful in a number of military and strategic systems. Neodymium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet (NdYAG) lasers are used in range finding applications that are used in advanced weapon systems.
- Terfenol D, which is an alloy of terbium, iron and dysprosium, has unique properties and it is used in sonar and other acoustic applications.
- Rare earth oxides are mixed with Tungsten to improve its high temperature properties for welding, replacing thorium which was mildly hazardous to work with.
India’s Rare Earths Industry
India was one of the early countries to recognise the significance of rare earth elements. Special organisations were set up by the government to develop, manage and regulate rare earth resources in the country. However, over a period of time, India lost its competitive positon in the market vis-à-vis other countries due to global developments in the rare earths industry and also due to India’s inertia. Given their strategic importance, India should decide on an appropriate action plan for development of rare earths industry. For that India needs deeper understanding of the various value chains in the global rare earths ecosystem.
China, US, Australia and India are the world’s important sources of rare earth elements. India at fourth position has 1.3 million tonnes of rare earth oxide (REO) content. As per estimates, total rare earth reserves in India are 10.21 million tonnes. This would take India to the third position. Monazite is the principal source of rare earths in India. Monazite also contains thorium and uranium. Because of the presence of these radioactive elements, mining of monazite sands is undertaken by a government body, the Department of Atomic Energy.
Reasons for declining rear earths industry in India
India and China started mining of rare earths at the same time. While China developed strong domestic rare earths system, India has been a supplier of rare earth raw materials and some basic rare earth compounds.
The decreasing rare earths production in India is due to absence of a domestic market and the fall in exports because of low cost production by China. Most of the products that use rare earth elements are presently imported to India in finished form. Currently there is no manufacturing facility in India to produce intermediate rare earth products.
In India, the knowledge creation part of the value chain taken place mostly within the confines of public sector technology-oriented organisations. The organisations are not connected to any industries or potential users and beneficiaries of this knowledge creation process.
- Coordination should be established between various science and technology establishments, especially in areas which are economically and strategically important. Collaborative research between the organisations should be promoted.
- The existing gap between the production of rare earth materials and their use in various products needs to be bridged. A clear manufacturing policy should be developed for identification of intermediate products that needs to be produced in the country.
- Separating out the various rare earth fractions into their individual elements and then converting them into the metal form would increase the value addition to the raw material significantly.
- If the above fundamental structural issues are addressed,there is still chance for India to become a player of substance in the global rare earths industry.