Product has been added to the basket

Bruce Yardley appointed Chief Geologist

Bruce Yardley (Leeds University) has been appointed Chief Geologist by The Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD) of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Chartership news

Chartership Officer Bill Gaskarth reports on a projected new logo for use by CGeols, advice on applications and company training schemes

Climate Change Statement Addendum

The Society has published an addendum to 'Climate Change: Evidence from the Geological Record' (November 2010) taking account of new research

Cracking up in Lincolnshire

Oliver Pritchard, Stephen Hallett, and Timothy Farewell consider the role of soil science in maintaining the British 'evolved road'

Critical metals

Kathryn Goodenough* on a Society-sponsored hunt for the rare metals that underpin new technologies

Déja vu all over again

As Nina Morgan Discovers, the debate over HS2 is nothing new...

Done proud

Ted Nield hails the new refurbished Council Room as evidence that the Society is growing up

Earth Science Week 2014

Fellows - renew, vote for Council, and volunteer for Earth Science Week 2014!  Also - who is honoured in the Society's Awards and Medals 2014.

Fookes celebrated

Peter Fookes (Imperial College, London) celebrated at Society event in honour of Engineering Group Working Parties and their reports

Geology - poor relation?

When are University Earth Science departments going to shed their outmoded obsession with maths, physics and chemistry?

Nancy Tupholme

Nancy Tupholme, Librarian of the Society and the Royal Society, has died, reports Wendy Cawthorne.

Power, splendour and high camp

Ted Nield reviews the refurbishment of the Council Room, Burlington House

The Sir Archibald Geikie Archive at Haslemere Educational Museum

You can help the Haslemere Educational Museum to identify subjects in Sir Archibald Geikie's amazing field notebook sketches, writes John Betterton.

Top bananas

Who are the top 100 UK practising scientists?  The Science Council knows...

Strategic Metals & Minerals

Mark Tyrer* asks whether the world is facing a crisis or an opportunity

Geoscientist 22.01 February 2012

As economies grow and our reliance on technology increases, so too does the world demand for non-renewable resources, in particular, some of the scarcer metals. Since the military reliance on Strategic Metals was identified during the Cold War, developed nations have become very concerned that the world supply of some elements comes from relatively few sources. Foremost amongst these are the rare earths, but for all of them, high demand and limited alternatives may restrict technological development1.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s May 2011 report on Strategically Important Metals addressed how the UK should proceed in this economically and technologically significant field – and concluded that scientific input could transform their current scarcity into an opportunity for UK business.
Applications of the rare earth elements2 (REE) are diverse, spanning catalysts, electro-optics, semiconductors, magnets and related devices (data storage, power generation, motors etc.). Other critical raw materials include the soft metal Indium, which is used in flat-screen displays and as the dopant in II-VI compound semiconductors, in novel batteries and in photovoltaic devices.

TYRER 1resized.png


The issue has come to a head as the Chinese economy has blossomed. China holds the majority of the known reserves of lanthanide elements and, understandably, would prefer to export high ‘added value’ products, rather than lower value raw materials. Some estimates3 put China’s holdings at >90% of global reserves, and a political decision to reduce exports from China by 70% has inevitably pushed the price of these metals very high indeed. The British Geological Survey (BGS) produced an informative review4 of these metals in 2010 on behalf of Minerals UK, and the Geological Society published a briefing note on the Rare Earth Elements in November 2011.

Rare Earth Elements comprise the lanthanides and the closely related metals scandium and yttrium, with which they are often associated in nature. Although some of them are not especially rare, there are few rich ores and many of those known outside China are in remote locations. To compound this awkward situation, the recycling of these metals is in its infancy.

Lithium is a more abundant element that is also not yet recycled effectively. When I visited the lithium operations of Umicore, in Olen, Belgium, our host asked a simple question: “What have you done with your old mobile phone?” Without exception, the visitors admitted that their old phones were lying in a drawer! Many expensive devices will be stored in this way at the end of their lives - in case they are needed - before they enter the recycling circuit, should such a circuit exist.

In nature, REEs occur in a wide range of minerals, often complex carbonates, phosphates, silicates and arsenates. Despite their name, they are not, in fact, all that ‘rare’. Cerium, for example, is about as abundant as copper in the Earth’s crust (~68ppm) but, unlike copper, is rarely concentrated into abundant ores. Their similar chemistries mean that the REE metals are notoriously difficult and expensive to separate from each other. At the time of writing the commonest REE, cerium, has a 99% spot price of around £90/kg. Metal prices are further complicated by rapidly evolving markets.

TYRER 7resized.png Neodymium is one of the more abundant REE metals, for example, but our insatiable demand for “supermagnets” keeps its price high - approximately twice that of cerium. The neodymium alloy Nd2Fe14B has a phenomenal magnetic susceptibility - so much so that a one-gram magnet can lift an object 1000 times its own mass! As a result, much green technology is dependent on these powerful light magnets in motors and generators, for example.

Image: China currently dominates the production of rare earth elements worldwide.

Further affecting the value of neodymium (and samarium) is the unprecedented demand for portable electronic devices, which use these magnetic alloys in their transducers. Interested readers can see price charts updated hourly on the web. A newspaper article5 of March 2011 reported that: “At $72 a kilo, cerium oxide, used in polishing glass and lenses, is now 15 times more expensive than it was a year ago; neodymium has more than tripled in value to $115 over the same period. Analysts do not expect them to cool off for at least two years”.

TYRER 5resized.png


It is interesting to consider how we come to be in this situation. Since their discovery in the late 18th Century, REEs remained chemical curiosities for more than 100 years. As industrial applications developed throughout the 20th Century, new discoveries provided commercial sources for these metals from India, Russia, North America, Greenland and ultimately the Monazite mines of South Africa.

Image: Rare Earth Oxides. Clockwise from top centre: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

Around 30 years ago, the United States was the largest producer (largely from the Mountain Pass Mine, in California) until China flooded the market with low-cost rare earths to supply a rapidly growing demand. This was possible for two main reasons. First, much of the Chinese production comes from the REE-rich tailings of the Bayan Obo iron mine in inner Mongolia, the largest known deposit of both rare earths and of fluorite, occurring as a rift along the edge of the Sino-Korean craton. It is estimated that half the world's known REE reserves are in this one location. The second reason is that China was not restricted by environmental or other legislations, allowing it to undercut other suppliers to the point where commercial competition became futile and production in the rest of the world all but ceased.

An American study6 in 2010 assessed the viability of commercial primary production in the rest of the world and concluded that “rare earth deposits in the United States, Canada, Australia and Africa could be mined by 2014” but that “rebuilding a US rare earth supply chain may take up to 15 years”. Mining operations at Mountain Pass and at Mount Weld (Western Australia) are already getting underway, but it seems likely that for the next decade or so, China will dominate the world supply of these metals. If it chooses to sell them as finished products rather than as raw materials, the rest of the world has two choices: buy them or do without! The latter option appears unlikely; it also seems improbable that alternative technologies will become available over the next few years.

A natural question to ask would be - what is the best strategy for the UK to adopt? This was the basis of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Strategically Important Metals. This was launched in November 2010 under the Chairmanship of Andrew Miller MP (the Society’s 2012 Sir Peter Kent Lecturer). The Geological Society presented written and oral evidence to the Committee, which reported on the 17 May 2011. To mark the launch of the report, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee brought together Andrew Bloodworth (BGS), Hazel Pritchard (University of Cardiff) and Tony Hartwell (Environmental Sustainability KTN) to discuss how the availability of certain elements affects the UK now (and in the future) and involves expert scientific input across the entire supply chain; from exploration and mining to the recycling of materials.

TYRER 6resized.png


The report stresses the need for focused research. Speakers at the May meeting referred to the need for vertically integrated research. Collaboration and developing continuity of ideas throughout the value chain is in its infancy, yet in this case, seems very important indeed. For example, the concerns of the exploration geochemist and the industrial recycler may seem poles apart, yet they are surprisingly close. Both are concerned with similar chemistry and both rely on a sound thermodynamic understanding to reach their goals yet, unless the need for collaboration is recognised, each may remain unaware of the other’s work.

Image: Yttrium metal in dendritic, massive and machined form. Inset: Yttrium was commonly used as the red phosphor in CRT displays and is now a major component in ‘YBCO’ superconductors (YBa2Cu3O7)

The urgency of this issue may foster collaboration and engagement between other ‘links in the chain’, generating new ideas and shared understanding. One important research need is the continued gathering of comprehensive high-quality data. For example, are there sources of strategic metals that have not yet been found or adequately exploited? However implausible it seems, much of our own country remains unexplored on a detailed mineralogical and geochemical level. In addition, we know of industrial processes that concentrate some strategic elements (for example in combustion residues) and it seems reasonable to expect others to come to light.

So far, the focus of this and other governments has been on a developing a strategy for the next few years, bridging the period of the Chinese monopoly on global REE supplies. One view is that our demand for strategic metals as raw materials is minimal because Britain’s manufacturing base is now so small and because we import finished goods or components. But little consideration seems to have been given to the future. In that medium term, strategic metals in devices will, collectively, reach the critical mass for recycling. Perhaps a better question to ask then is - how do we recycle these elements?


There are of course, two answers. We can export our waste overseas, where it will be reprocessed and re-imported as new goods, albeit at a price. Alternatively, we have the specialist knowledge and skills in the UK to do it ourselves. Certainly, if native sources are exploited, this will require a technological infrastructure to process the minerals (or industrial residues) which, in turn, opens up opportunities for recycling materials as they become available. It is hoped that someone in government recognises this as an opportunity to be encouraged.

The area needs both research and development. We need research into our natural resources and the technologies needed for their efficient exploitation and re-processing, as well as into the mechanisms acting on the supply chain. How exactly do we get those old phones out of desk drawers? Would a financial incentive similar to a deposit on a returnable drinks bottle help? Research we can do, but development is an area where we as a nation are less successful.

Recent governments seem to feel that market forces will sort things out with minimal intervention from them, but in this case I have my doubts. Although stockpiling and ‘rare earth hedge funds’ may distort market prices, their contribution to greening the planet seems more questionable. Industry needs an incentive to establish the technology with which these metals will be recycled efficiently and in the UK, we might look to the Technology Strategy Board to provide a lead.

There is a real opportunity here to shape our own technological futures and the contributions of scientists will be significant. At the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee meeting, one questioner asked the Chairman about scientific understanding in politics and government, specifically how many senior civil servants hold scientific qualifications. To his credit, Andrew Miller turned the question on its head, saying that he hoped debates like this would encourage our brightest young scientists to apply for the Civil Service Fast Track recruitment programme.
Career change to politics anyone?

Tyrer Markresized.jpg * Mark Tyrer is an independent Geochemist, based in Derbyshire and London. He is a Research Manager for MIRO, the Mineral Industry Research Organisation, Visiting Professor of geomaterials at Coventry University and Honorary Research Fellow at Imperial College. © M Tyrer; FBSR to ‘Geoscientist’ and the ‘Geological Society of London’ without reservation.

Further reading

  1. Moreley, N & Eatherby, D (2008) Material Security. Ensuring resource availability for the UK economy Strategic report produced by the Resource Efficiency Knowledge Transfer Network ISBN 978-1-906237-03-5 Oakdene Hollins, Aylesbury.
  2. Kara, H et al. (2010) Lanthanide Resources and Alternatives Report DFT-01 205 on behalf of the Department of Business, Industry and Skills. Oakdene Hollins, Aylesbury.
  3. Highley, D E et al. (2004) The Economic Importance of Minerals to the UK Report, CR/04/070N on behalf of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. British Geological Survey, Keyworth.
  4. Walters, A et al. (2010) Rare earth Elements Commodity Profile Report on behalf of Minerals UK. British Geological Survey, Keyworth.
  5. Foster, P (2011) Rare earths: Why China is cutting exports crucial to Western technologies The Daily Telegraph, 19th March 2011. London.
  6. US Government Accountability Office (2010) Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain Washington DC