To understand the stakes related to rare earths, we must address the myth of their rarity. Indeed, they are all more abundant than gold or silver in the earth’s crust, and their name actually reflects a relative rarity in minerals in which they are present (that is to say in low concentrations).
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates world reserves to be around 114 million tonnes, i.e. more than 800 years of consumption if the level of current demand is maintained. These reserves are spread between China (48%), CIS (17%), the U.S. (11%), India (3%) and Australia (1.4%). The remaining 19% are divided between Canada, Greenland, Malaysia, Brazil, South Africa, Malawi, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and a handful of other countries.
China therefore owns almost half of the world reserves, but its role goes far beyond as it accounts for more than 95% of world production. The two biggest deposits are located in Bayan Obo, Inner Mongolia, and on the coast of Guangdong (South East). This second deposit is extremely rich in “heavy” rare earths, those from gadolinium to lutetium, which are the least widespread and most requested. The consequence is that China could potentially own up to 80% of the world reserves for these specific “heavy” elements.
Among all other countries with rare earths, only India, Brazil and Malaysia produce consistently. The U.S. and Australia just started this year but still in very small quantities.
The production capacity is extremely concentrated which represents a significant threat to the security of supply in the sector.