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Future supply of rare earth elements could be disrupted

While scarcity of rare earth elements (REE) in absolute terms is unlikely to be a concern, their future supply could be disrupted by technical, environmental and financial factors, according to a briefing note published by the Geological Society of London today.

8 November 2011

‘Demand for rare earth elements has increased by more than 50% in the last decade, and is expected to rise further’ says Professor Paul Henderson, Honorary Professor of Mineralogy at University College London, and chair of the drafting group. REE are increasingly being used in the production of low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines, electric traction motors and hybrid vehicles, as well as countless other applications from LCD and plasma screens to jet engines.

With most deposits located outside of Europe, there has been concern over future supply of materials vital to the EU economy. ‘Geological scarcity in absolute terms is unlikely to be a concern’ says Professor Henderson. ‘But the technical, financial and environmental challenges of establishing new mines could lead to disruptions in supply. Overcoming these challenges will take some time, as will reopening pre-existing mines. It is this which leads us to be concerned about future supply.’

There are environmental considerations too, with REE production using a great deal of energy, and most REE mines being open cast. Geoscientists play a vital role, not only in identifying sources of REE and extracting useful ores, but in ensuring that as little damage as possible is done to the environment during extraction. They can also make an important contribution 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’, says Professor Henderson. ‘Sustained funding of research is needed for the entire life cycle of the REE, from exploration and mining to manufacture, recycling, re-use and disposal.’

The briefing note explores the properties, occurrence, extraction, supply and uses of REE. In outlining up to date information about REE and their future availability, it is intended to help inform debate among scientists, policy-makers, potential investors and industry players.