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Explained: What are Rare Earths, and why is US military getting involved in their processing?

The estimated size of the Rare Earth sector is between $10 billion and $15 billion. About 100,000-110,000 tonnes of Rare Earth elements are produced annually around the world.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 12, 2019 11:21:58 am
Europium and Scandium (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The United States Army plans to fund the construction of a Rare Earths processing facility to secure the domestic supply of minerals that are used to make military weapons and electronics, Reuters reported. This will be the first financial investment by the US military into commercial-scale Rare Earths production since the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb during World War II, the report said.

The decision comes after China threatened to stop exporting Rare Earth materials to the US amid the ongoing trade war between the countries. A commentary published in Chinese state media in May 2019 said: “Waging a trade war against China, the United States risks losing the supply of materials that are vital to sustaining its technological strength.”

While Rare Earth elements are used in building consumer electronics, in healthcare and transportation, they are especially important for governments because of their use in manufacturing defence equipment. At present, China refines approximately 80%-90% of the world’s Rare Earths, thereby having substantial control over their supply.

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Explained: What are Rare Earths?

Rare Earth Elements or Rare Earth Metals are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides, and have similar chemical properties.

The 17 Rare Earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).

Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”. One of the Rare Earths, promethium, is radioactive.

What are Rare Earths used for?

These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.

Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.

Rare Earth elements are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones. Cerium, the most abundant Rare Earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.

According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the estimated size of the Rare Earth sector is between $10 billion and $15 billion. About 100,000-110,000 tonnes of Rare Earth elements are produced annually around the world.

How and why does China dominate the sector?

In China, the mining of Rare Earths began in the 1950s, but it remained a cottage industry until the 1970s, when the chemist Xu Guangxian found a way to separate the Rare Earth elements.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, after the Cultural Revolution in China ended, the country focussed on exploiting its natural resources. In 1992, on a visit to the Rare Earths district of Baotou in Inner Mongolia, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said: “The Middle East has its oil, China has Rare Earths; China’s Rare Earths deposits account for 80% of identified global reserves, you can compare the status of these reserves to that of oil in the Middle East. It is of extremely important strategic significance; we must be sure to handle the Rare Earth issue properly and make the fullest use of our country’s advantage in Rare Earth resources.”

According to research by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, since 2010 when China curbed shipments of Rare Earths to Japan, the US, and Europe, production units have come up in Australia, and the US along with smaller units in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Even so, the dominant share of processed Rare Earths lies with China.

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