The stakes are significant: the rare earth elements have become key industries in developed countries, actors essentials of a multitude of industrial products, including applications designed to have their claims explode over the coming years, such as electric cars and wind turbines.
The supply of these precious minerals is highly constrained due to an incredible concentration in China, there will be no longer enough to satisfy everyone. And as China’s high-tech industries grow, supply issues will likely get only worse.
Lanthanides, yttrium and scandium, are elements often largely unknown, which are yet part of our daily lives. More commonly known as “rare earth“, this group of 17 metals, present in many minerals but in very small quantities, has played a central role in the technological revolution of the last twenty years.
Used in green technologies, miniaturized electronics or defense systems, the demand for these minerals continues to explode in a context of already tight supply. Rare earths, are at the center of a “war” in which economic and industrial states around the world compete again each other.
Rare earths: huge number of high-tech applications based on their extraordinary properties
The microscopic structure of rare earths gives this group of metals particularly interesting physical properties, especially optical and magnetic, making them essential for many high-tech applications.
Their magnetic properties are among others used in Neodymium-Iron-Boron or NdFeB permanent magnets, which are the most powerful ones known today, and the key for electric vehicles and high-power wind turbines engines and generators. Their optical properties are used in new type of light bulbs and fluorescent lamps.
These technologies can use several hundred kilograms of rare earths, but many other applications only need very small amounts, like the vast majority of electrical equipment and consumer electronics such as microphones, sensors, audio systems, hard drives and compressors.
These minerals also have many other lesser known uses. Thus the fluid catalytic cracking for petroleum refining, metal alloys, powders and polishing the glass industry represent the share of consumption of rare earths largest after the magnets, with a total of 62% of uses in mass. Catalytic converters, fuel cells, the high-temperature superconductors and nanotechnology are also major consumers.
Rare earths are used in many industrial products and most of them are irreplaceable. Our economies depends on the availability of these metals as evidenced by the increased production and the explosion of market weight during the past decade, the latter being now estimated at between 5 and $10 billion, against 500 million in 2003 and only about 1.5 to 2 billion year ago.