REEs are a series of chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust that are essential components of many technologies, including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care, and national defense. Rare Earths Elements (REE) are incorporated into many sophisticated technologies with both commercial and defense applications including smartphones and flatscreen televisions to hybrid cars, wind-turbine power systems to communications equipment. These are referred to as “rare” because although relatively abundant in total quantity, they appear in low concentrations in the earth’s crust and extraction and processing is both difficult and costly.
The top rare earth producing countries are China (105,000 tons), Australia (10,000 tons), US(4,100 tons), Russia(2,500 tons), Thailand(1,100 tons) and Malaysia (200 tons). Some estimates are that China now produces about 90- 95% of the world’s rare earth oxides and is the majority producer of the world’s two strongest magnets, samarium cobalt (SmCo) and neodymium iron boron (NeFeB) permanent, rare earth magnet.
The 70% of the world’s light rare earths coming from a single mining operation at the Bayan Obo deposit in Inner Mongolia.China imposes several different types of unfair export restraints on the materials at issue in today’s consultations request, including export duties, export quotas, export pricing requirements as well as related export procedures and requirements.
“Because China is a top global producer for these key inputs, its harmful policies artificially increase prices for the inputs outside of China while lowering prices in China; This price dynamic creates significant advantages for China’s producers when competing against U.S. producers – both in China’s market and in other markets around the world,” found Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The improper export restraints also contribute to creating substantial pressure on U.S. and other non-Chinese downstream producers to move their operations, jobs, and technologies to China.
Rare-earth minerals are important strategic yet non-renewable resources, and efforts are needed to ramp up scientific and technological innovation for there to be increased added value in the sector, Chinese President Xi Jinping said while visiting a major rare-earth company in East China’s Jiangxi Province, the Xinhua News Agency reported in May 2019.
There needs to be a push to continuously improve extraction and utilization techniques, extend the industry chain, raise the added value, and enhance environmental protection of relevant projects to achieve green, sustainable development, Xi said during his visit to JL MAG Rare-Earth Co in Ganzhou. It was the latest hint that the world’s No.1 producer of rare-earth elements is giving the minerals a place of prominence amid escalating trade tensions with the US.
It has even used this power as an economic weapon, reportedly cutting off rare earth supplies to Japan in September 2010 over a long-standing territorial dispute. After several years of investigation, the WTO concluded in summer 2014 that China was indeed violating its free trade commitments. In response to the ruling, China announced in early 2015 that it would lift the export quotas.
The United States banned imports of a range of rare earth materials from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea that can be used in military applications, the US Defense Department said in a notice in April 2019. “[The Defense Department] prohibits acquisition of samarium-cobalt magnets, neodymium-iron-boron magnets, tungsten metal powder, and tungsten heavy alloy or any finished or semi-finished component containing tungsten heavy alloy melted or produced in North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran, because these materials play an essential role in national defense,” the notice stated.
The United States Department of Defense is in talks with Australia to host a facility that would process rare earth minerals, part of an effort to reduce reliance on China for the specialised materials used in military equipment, a senior American official said. The push comes as China threatens to curb exports to the US of rare earth materials, a group of 17 minerals used in the production of fighter jets, tanks and hi-tech consumer electronics.
“We’re concerned about any fragility in the supply chain and especially where an adversary controls the supply,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, told reporters at a Washington event in Aug 2019. Lord said the Pentagon was looking at several options to partner on rare earth processing facilities, adding “one of the highest potential avenues is to work with Australia”. The Pentagon update came after the US said earlier this year that it would look to Australia and Canada to develop rare earth reserves around the world to reduce the global reliance on China. It has also held talks with rare earth projects across Africa. There is only one operational rare earths mine in the US, though the country has no processing facilities. California’s Mountain Pass mine is building a processor and hopes to have it online by next year.
Australia’s Lynas Corp is the world’s largest rare earths miner and processor outside of China and plans to have an initial processing plant running within the next four years. It is also planning to develop a rare earth separation facility in Texas following regulatory issues at its processing plant in Malaysia. Rare earth developers in Australia are edging closer to building plants. The country contains only 2.8 percent of the world’s rare earth reserves, but accounts for more than half of the new projects in the global pipeline.
Rare Earth Elements
Rare earth elements consist of 17 elements on the periodic table, including 15 elements beginning with atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and extending through number 71 (lutetium), as well as two other elements having similar properties (yttrium and scandium). Rare earths are divided into two groups: light rare earth elements (LREE) – lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, and samarium, and heavy rare earth elements (HREE) – europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, and yttrium.
From 2016 through 2020 demand for rare earth elements(REE): neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and lanthanum will grow relatively strongly, but, from 2020 through 2025 the rate of global demand growth for these rare earths will accelerate year-over-year, resulting in major annual demand increases by 2025 that can only be satisfied by the continuous and accelerated development of new mines. REE demand will boom from 2020 onwards as growth rates of top end-use categories including electric vehicles, wind turbines and other hi-tech applications accelerate, according to a new report by Adamas Intelligence.
China produces more than 85% of the global supply of rare earths and the country is also the largest consumer. In 2015, China’s consumption was led by magnets (35%), abrasives (18%), and catalysts (15%). As China’s insatiable demand for rare earth elements continues to grow over the coming ten years, China’s domestic production will struggle to keep up in all scenarios examined herein, leading the nation to become a net importer of certain rare earths at the expense of the rest of the world’s supply security. “In fact, by 2025 China’s domestic demand for neodymium oxide for permanent magnets alone is poised to exceed total global production of neodymium oxide by 9,000 tonnes in our base case scenario, highlighting the imminent need for additional sources of supply,” according to report.The world may face problems of Critical Material supply, but these concerns are not translated into product design activity, even though history suggests that product design could play a role in finding solutions to Critical Materials problems, says Delft researcher David Peck.
Samarium-cobalt magnets and neodymium-iron-boron magnets are rare earth magnets with many military applications, particularly in aviation and navigation, such as sonar, radar, and guidance systems, the notice said. The magnets, which produce a high magnetic force and can withstand demagnetization at high temperatures are essential to many military weapons systems, the notice said. Limits on imports of tungsten are due in part to the metal’s use as a casing for nuclear warheads, according to the notice. Imports of the restricted rare earths from other countries are still permitted if the materials are not available in the United States, the notice said.
How Are Rare Earths Used in Defense Applications?
Rare earth materials play an essential role in several critical weapons components and systems such as precision-guided munitions, electric ship drives, command and control centers, and aircraft, tanks, and missile systems.It has been estimated that DOD uses less than 5% of domestic consumption of rare earths. Rare earth elements are found in two types of commercially available, permanent magnet materials. They are samarium cobalt (SmCo), and neodymium iron boron (NdFeB).
NdFeB magnets are considered the world’s strongest permanent magnets and are essential to many military weapons systems. SmCo retains its magnetic strength at elevated temperatures and is ideal for military technologies such as precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, and aircraft. The superior strength of NdFeB allows for the use of smaller and lighter magnets in defense weapon systems.
The use of rare earth elements in a variety of defense-related applications:
1. Guidance and control: Electric motors and Actuators e.g. Fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems; smart bombs, UAVs
2. Electric motors: Compact, powerful permanent magnets for Disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and control centers
3. Laser targeting and weapons systems: Amplification of energy and resolution for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures
4. Communications: Amplification, enhanced resolution of signals in Satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; Radiation and Chemical detection
5. Electronic Warfare & Directed Energy weapons : Energy storage/ Density amplification, capacitance e.g.Long range Acoustic Device and Area Denial systems, Jammers, NiMetal Hydride battery
6. Optical equipment and speakers.
Costly to Extract, Complex Manufacturing process
While relatively abundant in the earth, rare earth elements are costly to extract due to their relatively low concentrations per volume of earth extracted, making production viable only at extremely large scales.
The rare earth production process is complex and expensive. The stages of production consist of mining, separating, refining, alloying, and manufacturing rare earths into end-use items and components, as described in the GAO report.
• The first stage is the actual mining, where the ore is taken out of the ground from the mineral deposits.
• The second stage is separating the ore into individual rare earth oxides.
• The third stage is refining the rare earth oxides into metals with different purity levels; oxides can be dried, stored, and shipped for further processing into metals.
• The fourth stage is forming the metals, which can be processed into rare earth alloys.
• The fifth stage is manufacturing the alloys into devices and components, such as permanent magnets.
US has only has one rare earths mine – and government scientists have been told not to work with it because of its Chinese ties. The mine is southern California’s Mountain Pass, home to the world’s eighth-largest reserves of the rare earths used in missiles, fighter jets, night-vision goggles and other devices. But the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has told government scientists not to collaborate with the mine’s owner, MP Materials, the DOE’s Critical Materials Institute told Reuters. This is because MP Materials is almost a tenth-owned by a Chinese investor and relies heavily on Chinese sales and technical know-how, according to the company. “Clearly, the MP Materials ownership structure is an issue,” said Tom Lograsso, interim director of the institute, the focal point of the U.S. government’s rare earths research and a facility that typically works closely with private industry.
US Department of Defense pursues a three-pronged strategy to secure supplies of rare earth elements, which consists of diversification of supply, pursuit of substitutes, and a focus on reclamation of waste as part of a larger U.S. Government recycling effort
Alternatives to Chinese supply
As a result of the increased demand and tightening restrictions on exports of the metals from China, some countries are stockpiling rare earth resources. Searches for alternative sources in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, Greenland, and the United States are ongoing
Kazakhstan, the world’s top producer of uranium, is now entering the rare earths discussion because both heavy and light rare earths are commonly found in the tailings of uranium mines. In 2012, the country’s state-owned nuclear company Kazatomprom received investment from Japanese corporation Sumitomo to build a processing facility that will eventually produce 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides a year.
Currently, REEs are extracted from the two mined minerals mentioned: bastnasite and monazite. Rare earth manganese nodules have been found beneath the Atlantic Ocean. A Popular Science article reported that “Last summer the UN’s International Seabed Authority issued the first deep sea exploration permits, allowing companies to start actively looking for places to mine nodules and other sources of rare earth elements from the ocean floor.”
US Army to invest in rare earths processing plant for defence needs
The US Army is looking to fund the construction of a plant that will process rare earths, Reuters reported citing a government document. According to the government document, the military sought proposals from miners in Nov 2019 on the cost of building a heavy rare earths production facility.
Some of the minerals in this category are used in the manufacture of weapons and electronics in the defence sector. Around 920lb of rare earth materials are found in each F-35 fighter aircraft, according to a Congressional Research Service report in 2013.
Experts expressed concerns that Beijing could use its strong position as a rare earth supplier to its advantage in the trade war. According to estimates, 80% of the rear earth minerals imported by Washington between 2014 and 2017 were from China.
The US is looking to make use of Australian firm Lynas’ position as a major producer of these minerals. The company entered a partnership with US-based private firm Blue Line to jointly build a rare earth separation facility in the US.
Swimming robots help Europe rediscover REE and other minerals from its closed mines
Europe is also concerned as its booming Renewable industry is also dependent on rare-earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium and indium. Europe’s UNEXMIN project, is developing robotic systems for the autonomous exploration and mapping of Europe’s flooded mines, in hope of mining rare earths and other precious minerals from Europe’s closed mines.
Luís Lopez of La Palma Research Centre in Spain explained that Europe’s rich industrial heritage has left a vast network of approximately 30,000 closed mines. These mines closed due to a range of economic factors, not necessarily because of complete mineral depletion. But as the years have passed, the majority of the mines have flooded, making it dangerous and expensive to assess their potential for reopening.
UNEXMIN is an EU-funded Horizon 2020 project that develops a novel robotic system, primarily for the autonomous exploration and mapping of Europe’s flooded mines. The Robotic Explorer platform, made by three robots – UX-1a, UX-1b and UX-1c, uses non-invasive methods for autonomous 3D mine mapping for gathering valuable geological, mineralogical and spatial information. This can possibly open new exploration scenarios so that strategic decisions on the re-opening of Europe’s abandoned mines can be supported by actualised data that cannot be obtained by any other ways, without major costs and/or risks.
Their arsenal of scientific instruments includes cameras, sonar, a water sampler and multispectral cameras, developed at the University of Miskolc in Hungary. The aim is for the three robots – named UX-1a, UX-1b and UX-1c – to work as a team collecting different sorts of data to get the most out of their battery life.
In April 2018 the first prototype was unveiled, weighing 110kg with a 0.6m diameter. Its speed is 1–2 km/hr and its maximum operational depth is 500m with autonomy up to 5 hours. Since that time, the team has run trials in Finland’s Kaatiala mine (a former source of quartz and feldspar) and Slovenia’s Idrija mine (an historic source of Mercury). This month, the team will finish its test at Portugal’s Urgeiriça uranium mine, ahead of a final trial in May at the UK’s Ecton Mine, a former source of copper, lead and zinc.
Due to the risk of losing the untested robot in such harsh environments, the device has so far been tethered to an operating system by an “umbilical chord”. But the long term aim is create fully autonomous robots that can be used by mining companies, researchers and other organisations interested in these sites
Chinese Researchers develop greener rare-earth mining technology
Mining rare-earth elements has long been considered a dirty business, as it can lead to water and soil pollution, but a new technology developed by Chinese scientists may reverse the trend, offering a greener alternative for the industry
US Scientists have figured out a better way to extract rare earth elements from coal waste
It’s important to find new sources and more efficient methods for extracting them. US scientists have developed chemical process known as an ion exchange to separate them from the byproducts of coal production. It involves rinsing the coal with a special solution that releases the REEs bound to it.
More than 90 percent of the global heavy REE demand is sourced from ion-adsorption deposits, which form within weathering crusts. However, conventional mining applies excessive usage of chemical agents to recover REEs from these deposits, not only exhibiting low efficiency but also polluting the environment.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry proposed a new approach in the journal Nature Sustainability in Nov 2022, showing that employing electrokinetic mining techniques to extract REEs from weathering crusts can be both clean and economical.
Using this approach, researchers generated an electric field by putting electrodes on the top and bottom of a volume of soil. The electrokinetic effect can accelerate the migration of REEs, reducing the need for harmful chemical agents.
To evaluate the feasibility of the new method, they carried out several experiments of different scales. Results suggested that the new method outperformed traditional mining techniques.
For instance, the scaled-up experiments achieved a recovery efficiency of 96 percent within 67 hours by using electrokinetics. Using the conventional technique, it was only 62 percent at 130 hours.
The difference between the impact of the old and the new approach was even more significant in an on-site field test: Using electrokinetics can achieve a recovery efficiency higher than 90 percent, an 80 percent decrease in polluting agent usage and a 70 percent reduction in metallic impurities.
The study confirmed that this novel electrokinetic technology enabled green, efficient and selective recovery of REEs. Researchers also noted that the new method has great potential for use in the mining of other critical metals under conditions in which the metals exist in ionic states.
“We have known for many decades that rare earth elements are found in coal seams and near other mineral veins,” said one of the team, Sarma Pisupati from Pennsylvania State University. “However, it was costly to extract the materials and there was relatively low demand until recently… We wanted to take a fresh look at the feasibility of extracting REEs from coal because it is so abundant in the US.””Essentially, REEs are sticking to the surface of molecules found in coal, and we use a special solution to pluck them out,” said Pisupati. “We experimented with many solvents to find one that is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly.” They found Ammonium sulphate to be the most effective solvent, “We were able to very easily extract 0.5 percent of REEs in this preliminary study using a basic ion exchange method in the lab,”
Slovenian scientists discover breakthrough to reduce the use of rare earth technology
“A group of scientists from the Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS) have helped bring about an important breakthrough on technology that will reduce the use of rare earth elements in key components of electric motors,” as reported by STA.The breakthrough enables a 16-fold reduction in the use of rare earth elements in the production of high-energy magnets. This greatly reduces the costs of such magnets, which are essential components in electric vehicles and turbines.
The breakthrough was made as part of the EU-funded Romeo project, in which IJS scientists spent two years researching ways to reduce dependence on what are often referred to as “technology metals”. The project was implemented with the help of commercial partners Siemens and Valeo as well as Slovenian automotive parts maker Kolektor, car maker Daimler and magnet producer Vacuumschmelze. It was co-funded with around EUR 4m in EU money with the main goal of responding to the crisis on the market of rare earth materials caused by Chinese restrictions on exports, which prompted a massive spike in prices in 2009.
Another recently developed source of rare earths is electronic waste and other wastes that have significant rare earth components. New advances in recycling technology have made extraction of rare earths from these materials more feasible, and recycling plants are currently operating in Japan, where there is an estimated 300,000 tons of rare earths stored in unused electronics. In France, the Rhodia group is setting up two factories, in La Rochelle and Saint-Fons, that will produce 200 tons of rare earths a year from used fluorescent lamps, magnets and batteries
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected four projects
The demand for REEs has grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on developing economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected four projects to move on to a second phase of research in their efforts to advance recovery of rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal byproducts. DOE will invest $17.4 million to develop and test REE recovery systems originally selected and designed under phase 1 of a prior funding opportunity announcement through DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE).
The projects, expected to be completed by 2020, fall under two areas of interest: (1) bench-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproducts, including aqueous effluents; and (2) pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproduct solids.
The following two bench-scale projects were selected under area of interest 1:
· The University of North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies (Grand Forks, ND) will use North Dakota subbituminous lignite coal and coal-related material as feedstock to test their REE recovery system. In addition to producing REEs, the team plans to recover other material from the lignite feedstock to produce one or more value-added products. $2.75 million
· West Virginia University Research Corporation (Morgantown, WV) will use acid mine drainage solids as a feedstock for recovery of REEs and other useful materials. The solids are from Northern Appalachian and Central Appalachian bituminous coal seams in West Virginia. $2.66 million
Two pilot scale-projects were selected under area of interest 2:
· Physical Sciences, Inc. (Andover, MA) will use coal fly ash physically processed near Trapp, KY. as their feedstock. The fly ash is a byproduct of combusting Central Appalachian bituminous coal in a power plant boiler. The select portion will be shipped to a Pennsylvania location for subsequent processing to produce the final rare earth product. In addition, researchers will evaluate recovery of other useful materials from the fly ash. $6 million
· The University of Kentucky Research Foundation (Lexington, KY) will use two sources of coal preparation (coal washing) byproducts as feedstock for recovery of REEs. The team will also recover dry, fine coal from the feedstock material. The first location for installation and testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant in Perry County, KY that processes Central Appalachian bituminous coal. The second location for testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant that processes Illinois Basin bituminous coal near Nebo, KY. $6 million.