Monday, January 3, 2011

Those Pesky Rare Earths

So if the rare earth minerals are so rare, why all the fuss about them? Well actually, the rare earth minerals are named after the elements that they contain, which are primarily within the rare earth series on the periodic table, the lanthanides, elments 57-71, and numbers 21 and 39, Scandium and Yttrium. Despite the name, the elements are actually relatively plentiful in the earth's crust, but economically viable occurrences of the minerals are relatively rare compared to other mineable resources such as copper or iron ores. The real strategic value of the rare earth minerals is in the industrial uses of the elements they contain, which reads like a veritable Who's Who of the devices that allow us to continue as a high-tech society. Consider for example the following sampling of gadgets that depend on rare earth elements for their manufacture:

Aerospace components; mercury-vapor lamps; high-temperature superconductors; microwave filters; high refractive index glass; hydrogen storage; battery-electrodes; camera lenses; catalysts for oil refineries; chemical oxidizing agents; polishing powders; colorings in glass, ceramics and enamels; catalysts for self-cleaning ovens; rare-earth magnets; lasers; carbon arc lighting; glass used in welding goggles; ferrocerium firesteel (flint) products; ceramic capacitors; nuclear batteries; neutron capture materials; masers; phosphors; x-ray tubes; computer memories; fluorescent lamps; vanadium steel; portable X-ray machines; chemical reducing agents; PET Scan detectors.

Now you can understand why China's current 96% control of the export market for these minerals is of concern and why global mining companies are looking to open new sources.