Rare Earths — Not So Rare?

What do yttrium, ytterbium, erbium and terbium have in common?  They are rare earth elements first found in the Swedish town of Ytterby between 1828 and 1878 and named after that town in the periodic table. These are just a few interesting facts about rare earths in the “Trade Fact of the Day” from the Democratic Leadership Council.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about rare earths, even from people who can’t pronounce their names, in relation to China’s purported monopoly of these elements, used for a wide variety of technological applications such as digital communications, hard drives, solar panels, and motors for hybrid vehicles. There’s also some fear that China may reduce its exports of rare earths to show its displeasure with some countries.

It turns out that rare earths aren’t really rare at all.  It’s just that China now produces almost all of the world’s rare earths for its own use and for exports.  Of the 124,000 tons of rare earths produced in 2009, China produced 120,000 tons.  According the U.S. Geological Survey:

“Rare earths are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but discovered minable concentrations are less common than for most other ores. U.S. and world resources are contained primarily in bastnäsite and monazite. Bastnäsite deposits in China and the United States constitute the largest percentage of the world’s rare-earth economic resources, while monazite deposits in Australia, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the United States constitute the second largest segment.”

The U.S., with its significant reserves of rare earths, estimated at 13,000,000 tons, has one major production facility soon to be operating again, the rare-earth separation plant at Mountain Pass, Calif., now owned by Molycorp Minerals. With environmental problems and tough environmental rules, the mine closed in 2002. According to the Washington Independent,

. . . the company hopes to begin mining again at Mountain Pass in 2012. Sims says the mine will produce 20,000 tons of REE-equivalent each year, more than the current U.S. demand of between 15,000 and 18,000 tons per year.

With the renewed interest in rare earths, there is also renewed interest around the world in mining those elements, which over time could possibly compete with the Chinese.  Also, it’s likely more attention will be paid to recovering those elements in certain manufactured goods through recycling.  Also, while there are some substitutes for rare earths, they are not considered as effective.  More attention will probably be focused on those and other substitutes.  Markets do respond to scarcity – or perceived scarcity.