The rare earth elements (REE) have a wide variety of uses and applications, from LCD and plasma screens to jet engines and medical tracers. An increasingly important area of their use is in the production of low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines, electric traction motors and hybrid vehicles.
As a result, demand for REE has increased by more than 50% in the last decade, and is expected to rise further. A June 2010 study by the European Union identified the REE as among the 14 mineral commodities most critical to the EU economy, but most deposits are located outside of Europe, with the majority found in China, the CIS (Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), the USA and Australia.
The increasing demand for REE, and constraints on their supply, have led to concerns about their future availability. In 2009, China produced around 97% of global REE. Recent reductions in Chinese export quotas have led to increased prices, and exacerbated these concerns. While geological scarcity in absolute terms is not likely to be a problem, the technical, financial, environmental and regulatory challenges which must be overcome to establish new REE mines could mean disruptions in supply over the next decade.
There are environmental considerations too – like most mining and processing, REE production uses a great deal of energy, and nearly all rare earth mines are open cast. With REE increasingly being used in the manufacture of low carbon technology, there is particular concern that the development and uptake of new green technologies may be constrained by the availability of raw materials.
Geological and mineralogical research plays an important role in the search for rare earth ore deposits and their extraction. As well as identifying the sources of REE, geoscientists are vital in ensuring that as little damage is done to the environment as possible in extraction, and in addressing questions about security of supply and future demand for REE. Decision making by policy-makers and investors needs to be informed by the best available science, and sustained funding of research is needed for the entire life cycle of REE, from exploration and mining to manufacture, recycling, re-use and disposal.
For these reasons, the Geological Society of London has prepared a briefing note which explores the properties, occurrence, extraction, supply and uses of REE. Our focus is on their geological aspects, and the relationship between these and other scientific, economic and political considerations. In outlining up to date information about the REE and their future availability, it is hoped that the briefing note will help to inform debate among scientists, policy-makers, potential investors and other industry players.
Rare Earth Elements Briefing Note