Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rare earths

Like warnings about the world's dwindling supply of helium, essential for operating MRI machines, news about the limited sources of rare earth elements seems to be flying under the radar of the public. These 17 metals are essential in the production of numerous hi-tech devices: aerospace components, battery electrodes, camera lenses, catalytic converters, computer memories, cordless power drills, energy-saving light bulbs, flat-screen televisions, fluorescent lamps, hybrid vehicles, laptops, lasers, magnets, military weapons, MRI contrast agents, night-vision goggles, portable x-ray machines, smart phones, welding goggles, and wind turbines. Listed below are the rare earths by symbol and name, with current pricing*:

The elements are not really rare, but deposits large and concentrated enough to be worth mining are. Currently, China supplies 97% of the world's rare earth needs and is expected to steadily reduce rare earth exports in order to protect its supplies. Fears of future shortages have caused prices to skyrocket, with demand expected to exceed supply by the end of the year and showing no signs of abating. In 2015 the world's industries are forecast to consume an estimated 185,000 tons of rare earths, 50% more than the total for 2010.

The world is now scrambling to find other sources of supply, including recycling and deep sea mud. The bad news is that rare earth mines often also contain radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, which contaminate mine waste. The good news is that the Molycorp Minerals Facility in Mountain Pass, California, which closed in 2002, has reopened. The mine is the largest known deposit of rare earth elements outside China and has big expansion plans. President and CEO Mark A. Smith explains, "The current U.S. demand is somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 tons per year. In principle, Mountain Pass could eventually make the United States independent in rare earths."

*Prices are from June 2011 for oxides, as depicted in 2nd image.

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