Fri, Oct 29, 2010 - Page 9 News List

The rise of rare earth elements

Demand will only increase as cars, computers, phones and other electronic equipment become more advanced

By Alok Jha  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The “rare earth elements” are a group of 17 naturally occurring metallic elements used in small amounts in everything from high-powered magnets to batteries and electronic circuits. They have specific chemical and physical properties that make them useful in improving the performance of computer hard drives and catalytic converters, mobile phones, high-tech televisions, sunglasses and lasers.

As technology advances, so the demand for the metals rises; in the past decade, their use has doubled. There are several kilograms of such elements in typical hybrid gasoline-electric cars made by Toyota and Honda, a market that will expand in coming years.

Despite their name, rare earth elements are not actually all that rare. In a report on the elements published this year, the British Geological Survey put their natural abundance on the same level as copper or lead.

China has a near-monopoly on mining the elements. According to the geological survey China has 37 percent of the world’s estimated reserves, about 36 million tonnes, but controls more than 97 percent of production. The former Soviet bloc has about 19 million tonnes and the US 13 million tonnes, with other large deposits held by Australia, India, Brazil and Malaysia.

The Royal Society for Chemistry is raising awareness of falling mineral resources, making conservation of rare earth and other elements a priority for next year. The US House of Representatives is also worried about security of supply and is considering legislation to try to end the US’ dependence on Chinese imports. The Mountain Pass mine in California, shut down in 2002 because of environmental and cost issues, is now to be reopened. Other sources, untapped as yet, include Greenland. Estimates suggest the land mass could meet 25 percent of global demand.

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