Mar 252014
 

I’ve been interested in Rare Earth metals since the run up on prices in 2010. Not because it was an investment opportunity but because it dramatically affected Fluorescent lamps prices, which had been stable or falling for the last decade. The subject is also interesting because it deals with global politics, which I’m interested in, and Chemistry, which I studied in college. Recently the BBC ran an article on this topic in their magazine.

In addition to Fluorescent lamps, Rare Earth metals are used in LEDs, Wind Turbines, and all matter of green energy. What is ironic: mining Rare Earth metals is one of the least green activities on this planet. And thanks to¬†laissez faire government policies in China, almost all mining of Rare Earth metals was done in China. It wasn’t that China had the only supply. No, in fact Rare Earths are not rare, and can be found all over the world. China didn’t sweat the environmental degradation, whereas Western countries did. But that changed in 2010 when China got tired of fielding environmental complaints of their citizens and foreigners alike. Economically, it also made sense to keep the metals in country- letting their own manufactures buy at a subsidized price, while forcing foreign companies to bid on the metals limited by their export quotas. This drove the prices way up. There are no substitutes for these exotic metals, and no secondary sources. Speculators drove the market as well. This cause prices increases everywhere, which caused complaints to our government.

Just how dependent the entire world is on Chinese rare earths became very clear at the end of 2010 when China threatened to restrict supplies. The spike in rare-earth prices was very dramatic – up to 3,000% for some of them. Prices have since fallen back, but the shock was enough to prompt companies to begin to explore producing and refining rare earths elsewhere in the world.

Source and graph: BBC, and Bloomberg.

Rare-earth metals or elements typically include scandium (Sc-21), yttrium (Y-39) and the Lanthanides: lanthanum (La-57), cerium (Ce-58), praseodymium (Pr-59), neodymium (Nd-60), promethium (Pm-61), samarium (Sm-62), europium (Eu-63), gadolinium (Gd-64), terbium (Tb-65), dysprosium (Dy-66), holmium (Ho-67), erbium (Er-68), thulium (Tm-69), ytterbium (Yb-70), and lutetium (Lu-71). Source

Facts about Rare earths: Neither rare, nor earths

  1. First rare-earth element discovered by Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin in 1792 after receiving a heavy mineral from Swedish village of Ytterby
  2. Subsequent rare-earth elements identified and isolated over a period of about 150 years
  3. The core group of 15 rare earths are known as lanthanides
  4. These have an atomic number from 57 to 71 and are grouped together in the periodic table
  5. Scandium and yttrium – making the total number 17 – are also considered rare earths as they exhibit similar chemical properties to lanthanides
  6. Final one to be discovered, in 1945, was the radioactive promethium, which is the rarest
  7. Wide range of uses such as in camera and telescope lenses, catalytic converters, refining crude oil, magnets and X-ray scanning systems
    Source: BBC World Service

Terra-Rara
The BBC article quotes Andrea Sella. He has a fascinating 78 minute lecture on Rare Earths recorded at the Royal Institute. It made me wish I had completed my studies.

The strange story of some political elements

The chemistry and politics of rare earth metals.

RareEarthsAbundance, source Wikipedia

Abundance (atom fraction) of the chemical elements in Earth’s upper continental crust as a function of atomic number. The rarest elements in the crust (shown in yellow) are the most dense. They were further rarefied in the crust by being siderophile (iron-loving) elements, in the Goldschmidt classification of elements. Siderophiles were depleted by being relocated into the Earth’s core. Their abundance in meteoroid materials is relatively higher. Additionally, tellurium and selenium have been depleted from the crust due to formation of volatile hydrides. Wikipedia

Rare earth elements – the 14 or so elements with romantic names such as neodymium, gadolinium and dysprosium – have been very much in the news over the past five years. Their niche uses in electronics and in the renewable energy industry make them indispensable to today’s society. Yet most people know nothing about them or why they have become so controversial.

Andrea Sella gives an introduction to the lanthanide elements and considers the features which made them a maddening puzzle for the chemists of the 19th century, how they are a key example of turning swords into ploughshares, and their role in bringing these very words to your computer screen. With growing concern that the world may soon face a shortage of the rare earths Andrea also considers the political and economic ramifications of their distribution and technology.

More info on Rare Earths at Geology.com

World faces hi-tech crunch as China eyes ban on rare metal exports

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