FP Explainer

Are Rare Earth Elements Actually Rare?

Not if you're willing to dig for them.

When Apple's new iPhone debuts later this month, it will be the latest addition to a long list of electronic devices -- ranging from wind turbines to flat-screen TVs -- that rely on rare earth elements, a family of minerals found near the bottom of the periodic table. Rare earth elements are needed to manufacture the consumer electronics for which the world has an exponentially expanding appetite, and are also necessary for green-energy technology like nickel-metal-hydride electric-car batteries. There's just one problem: Almost nobody produces them except the Chinese, and even they may not have enough of them for long. So, are rare earth minerals actually rare?

Not really. The term "rare earth" is an archaic one, dating back to the elements' discovery by a Swedish army lieutenant in 1787. In fact, most (though not all) of the 15 (or 16, or 17, depending on which scientist you're talking to) elements are fairly common; several of them are more abundant in the Earth's crust than lead or nitrogen. The flints in cigarette lighters are made out of rare earths, and they've been used in incandescent gas lamps for more than a century. The stuff has been mined everywhere from Sweden to Southeast Asia to the American West. Even Afghanistan apparently has some.

Today, however, rare-earth mining is almost nonexistent outside China, which came to dominate the market in the 1980s and '90s by cutting world prices and now controls as much as 97 percent of the supply of some of the elements. The United States' only major rare-earth mine, a complex in Mountain Pass, California, that was once the world's leading producer of the minerals, shut down in 2002.

But the limited supply of the minerals in the marketplace is the result of economics and environmental concerns, not scarcity. Even with iPads flying off the shelves and high-end electric cars on showroom floors, the world consumes only a tiny amount of rare earth -- about 130,000 metric tons of it a year, or just over a tenth of the amount of copper produced last February alone. Market forecasters expect the global trade in rare earths to reach $2 billion to $3 billion by 2014, but even that amounts to barely 1 percent of today's iron market. And rare earth elements aren't actually worth very much at the mine -- most of their market value is added in the refining process.

There are also the environmental hazards. Rare-earth mining produces radioactive waste, and dealing with it in the United States and Canada requires a lot of permitting and expensive mitigation efforts -- the sort of thing that puts North American producers at a disadvantage to less scrupulously monitored operations in China. As a result, though prices have jumped in recent years, mining rare earth is still orders of magnitude less lucrative than copper or iron; for the big mining companies, it simply isn't worth the effort.

But the business could become worthwhile for smaller companies in the not-too-distant future, for a few reasons. For one thing, a few rare earth minerals actually are pretty rare. "Light" rare earth elements such as cerium -- an ingredient in enamels and glasses -- are plentiful, but "heavy" ones such as europium -- used produce color in TVs and other screens -- are growing harder to come by. The U.S. Magnet Materials Association predicts that China's own demand for some of the minerals will outstrip its supply in two to five years; pressure to develop the few other known reserves will increase accordingly. The U.S. military -- which relies on imported rare earth elements for lasers, missiles, radar systems, and other technologies -- has also fretted about its dependence on Chinese imports.

An April report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that developing a domestic supply would take seven to 15 years, but a U.S. congressman has introduced a bill that would try to speed things up with federal loan guarantees and other perks for mining companies. At least two North American companies are waiting in the wings: Molycorp Minerals, which bought the Mountain Pass mine in 2000 and hopes to have it up and running again soon, and Avalon Rare Metals, which wants to develop a very large deposit in Canada's Northwest Territories. If prices continue to rise, it could be enough for a handful of these smaller operators to turn a profit -- though probably not enough for anyone to tell stories of the Great Praseodymium Rush of 2011.

Thanks to Jack Lifton of Technology Metals Research, Virginia Morgan of Avalon Rare Metals, and David Trueman.

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Photo © Heinrich Pniok

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