An Introduction to Rare Earths

Written By David Roberts

Posted March 6, 2017

These popular minerals are a series of chemical elements embedded within the Earth’s crust that are excruciatingly vital to many modern technologies.

Consumer electronics, clean energy, advanced transportation, health care innovations, national defense, modern military technology, and many others all rely on rare earth elements (REEs).

Due to their many attributable magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical characteristics, they aid in improving modern technology’s ability to function at reduced weight, emissions, and energy consumption and provide greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.

They are especially vital in modernizations in military and defense technologies, including air and spacecraft.

They are also found in electronic countermeasures, coatings, optical equipment, communications devices, radar systems, and displays, all used for tactical purposes.

Ceramics containing the rare earth element cerium are paramount to the U.S. Space Shuttle program.

The heat-resistant ceramic coatings that are applied to jet engines as a barrier to protect metal alloys contain the rare earth element yttrium oxide.

Other aircraft use small, high-powered rare earth magnet actuators to control their various surfaces during times of operation.

Yttrium and other lanthanides (any of the series of the metallic elements from lanthanum to lutetium in the period table) are used as stabilizers and mold formers for lightweight jet engine turbines, stabilizer material in rocket nose cones, and specific laser crystals used in military communication devices.

Promethium, aptly named after the Greek god Prometheus, is used in atomic batteries for spacecraft and guided missiles.

The directional capabilities of precision-guided munitions in missiles and bombs rely on rare earth elements. So do the lasers used in target interrogators, target designators, and rangefinders.

The electrical systems in aircraft use samarium-cobalt permanent magnets to generate power, and those magnets are also essential in many other types of military-grade weapons systems.

Terfenol-D is a rare earth alloy made of terbium, iron, and dysprosium that is commonly used in high-power sonar systems on ships and submarines.

This REE alloy is also used to employ the air.

Stealth helicopters use speakers made of Terfenol-D in their noise cancellation blades and NdFeB magnets.

REEs are also a major component in the future of defense and aerospace technology, like unmanned craft such as drones, jets, and submarines.

And in addition to these many military and defense employments, rare earth elements are already implemented on all ends of the spectrum, from commercial to medical.

They comprise the makeup of flint, which gives the stone its signature ability to start fires, and they’ve even been linked to targeting and killing cancer.

However, it’s surprising to think that the United States, one of the world’s largest defense technology producers, doesn’t excavate nearly enough rare earths to sustain its entire technology production.

Since the 1980s, China has been the leader in rare earth excavation and refining.

Before 2010, China controlled nearly all of the production of all REEs.

Its large deposits once provided the nation with the leverage to control the global markets for these necessary elements.

But now, large deposits are being discovered around the globe, and with that refineries are appearing.

Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, and North America have all discovered deposits.

China’s monopoly is threatened.

The only mine located in all of North America is the Molycorp Mountain Pass Mine.

It is a pit-style mine positioned in California’s Mojave Desert that unearths Bastnäsite deposits, which now provide the majority of the world’s rare earth resources alongside China’s.

By controlling the world supply of rare earth elements, China is trying to create a barrier for anyone attempting to manufacture electronics and other essential technologies.

However, in October 2011, Molycorp announced that it had discovered a heavy rare earth deposit near its Mountain Pass facility and had obtained permission to drill and extract.

As stated earlier, rare earths like terbium, yttrium, and dysprosium especially are necessary for manufacturing modern military technologies, so of course the government has taken particular interest in finding sources of those elements within the country.

Perhaps in the near future, the United States will rise up enough in the rare earth industry to threaten China’s monopolistic advantage.

Until next time,

John Peterson
Pro Trader Today