What are rare earths ? Also elaborate on the usage and importance of such minerals ?

Published: December 13, 2019

Rare Earth Elements or Rare Earth Metals are a group of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table. The most abundant rare earth elements are cerium, yttrium, lanthanum and neodymium.

Despite their classification some of these elements are not really rare. As per the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the size of the Rare Earth sector is somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion. The number of rare earth elements produced around the world lies between 100,000-110,000 tonnes. 

Usage of rare earth elements – 

  • Building consumer electronics
  • Healthcare and advanced transportation
  • Computers and Networks, Communications
  • Clean energy and environmental mitigation 
  • Manufacturing defence equipment
  • Space components – jet engine turbine, drones, shuttle components 
  • Scandium is used in making televisions and fluorescent lamps
  • Yttrium is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer

The most abundant Rare Earth element is Cerium which is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.In a recent decision, the US army plans to fund construction of rare earths processing facility. The decision comes in the light of China threatening stoppage of exports of rare earth materials to the US amidst the ongoing trade war. 

 

China at present refines approximately 80%-90% of the world’s Rare Earths, thus having a substantial control over their supply. It will be the first financial investment by the US army for commercial production of rare earths since the project to build the first atomic bomb during the 2nd World War. 

Rare earths in China – 

Their mining began in China, in the 1950s and remained a cottage industry until the 1970s, when a chemist named Xu Guangxian found a way to separate the Rare Earth elements. In 1992, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping compared the status of Rare Earth reserves to that of oil in the Middle East and talked about the strategic significance of these elements. In 2010, China curbed shipments of rare earths to Japan, US, Europe.  There has been coming up of production units in Australia and US along with Asia, Africa and Latin America, though the dominant share of processed Rare Earths lie with China.

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