News / Asia

Rare Earth Elements Becoming Hot Commodity

Multimedia

If you follow the economic news, you have probably heard that rare earth elements are a hot commodity on international markets.  China, which has a disproportionate share of the world's supply of these valuable minerals recently began restricting their export.  These minerals are important parts of many advanced electronic equipment, including batteries for electric cars.  But many people are puzzled by the term "rare earth."

Cell phones, tablet computers, video games, 3D TV sets:  Practically all advanced electronic devices - including lots of critical military hardware - contain parts made with a group of exotic minerals called "rare earths."  If you remember the Periodic Table of Elements from your high school chemistry class, rare earth refers to a group of 17 elements, also called lanthanide elements, with similar metallic characteristics, but differing from other metals.  That is exactly the reason why they are such a hot commodity.

But how rare are the rare earth elements and why are they called earths?

"Rare is a bit of a misnomer here. In some cases a better word for rare might be 'hidden,' because these rare earth elements are found, in most cases, fairly commonly in the earth's crust," noted Jeffrey Post, a research geologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC.

Post says many rare earth elements are actually as common as tin, nickel, copper or zinc, but they tend to be widely dispersed in very small quantities.  There are only a few places where natural processes concentrated these elements enough to be mined.  So "rare," in fact, means that there's not enough of them in one place.

Nevertheless, rare earths have become a very hot commodity on the world's markets and prices for some of them are rising rapidly.  According to mineralprices.com, last December, a kilogram of yttrium cost $82 while now it costs around $200.  Dysprosium was $700 per kilogram and now it is $1,000.  Jeff Post notes that in our electronic age, many everyday devices depend on rare earth metals.

"The color images you see on LCD screens, on the computer screens… in many cases the phosphorus that produces these are based on rare earth elements," Post added.  "Many of the electronic components, the very miniature, smaller components that we need to drive these small cell phones, the small computers in a very efficient way depend on some amount of rare earth elements. The batteries, the magnets that are used in these devices, again make use of rare earth elements."

There are places on earth where natural geological processes created mineral deposits that contain large quantities of rare earth elements in crystallized form.   As the prices of rare earth metals increase it becomes profitable to mine mineral deposits that contain even small percentages of these metals.  A former iron ore deposit in China's inner Mongolia has become the world's largest mine for rare earth elements providing up to 90 percent of world's production.

Jeff Post notes that separating rare earth metals from other minerals is a complicated process. "You need to have a specialized chemical process that will separate the rare earth elements, not only from the ores but from each other.  Almost every rare earth element ore, like this one, contains not just one rare earth element but typically some amount of all the rare earth elements."

The rare earth elements are chemically very similar, so separating them from each other is a complex operation.  Geologists around the world are constantly looking for new deposits of these valuable minerals.  At the same time, the interest in recycling the elements from electronic waste is also on the rise.

You May Like

New England Bears Brunt of US Blizzard

Boston, surrounding region grapple with as much as 3 feet of snow, coastal flooding; leaders in New York, spared most severe weather, criticized for being overly cautious More

China Lifts Lid on Sale of Fake Goods Online

A recent survey found nearly 60 percent of a random sample of items bought from Taobao were fake More

Upward Aims to Create Old-girls Network in Silicon Valley

Lisa Lambert, an executive with Intel Corp.'s venture-capital unit, responds to the gender-disparity debate by creating a new social organization More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Spacei
X
Rosanne Skirble
January 27, 2015 5:05 PM
The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Saved By a Mistake - an Auschwitz Survivor's Story

Dagmar Lieblova was 14 when she arrived at Auschwitz in December 1943, along with her entire Czech Jewish family. All of them were to die there, but she was able to leave after several months due to a bureaucratic mix-up which saved her life. Now 85, with three children and six grandchildren, she says she has a feeling of victory. This report by Ahmad Wadiei and Farin Assemi, of RFE/RL's Radio Farda is narrated by RFE’s Raymond Furlong.
Video

Video Weekly Protests in Korea Keep Japanese WWII Atrocities Alive

Every week in Seoul protesters gather in front of the Japanese Embassy to demand an apology and reparations from Tokyo for the thousands of South Korean women who were forced into prostitution during World War II. Although this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, these protestors have helped keep the issue of comfort women alive and made it difficult for Japan to move beyond its past wartime atrocities. VOA's Brian Padden reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Exercise: New Prescription for Parkinsons Disease

Exercise could be the new prescription for Parkinson's Disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. More than six million people worldwide suffer from Parkinsons and they're traditionally treated with medication and surgery. Shelley Schlender has more.
Video

Video Brussels Shaken as New Greek Leader Challenges Europe’s Austerity Drive

Greece’s youngest-ever prime minister, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, was sworn in Monday after his victorious far-left Syriza party entered a coalition with far right rivals. Tsipras says he will restore dignity to Greece by ending spending cuts. So begins a new chapter for the country at the epicenter of Europe’s economic crisis - a change that has sent tremors across the continent, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Obama Urges Closer Economic Ties During Historic India Visit

U.S. President Barack Obama says the United States and India must do better to capitalize on untapped potential in their economic relationship - by removing some of the roadblocks to greater trade and investment. As VOA correspondent Aru Pande reports from New Delhi, Obama spoke after participating in India’s Republic Day celebration.
Video

Video White House Grapples With Yemen Counterterrorism Strategy

Reports say the U.S. has carried out a drone strike on suspected militants in Yemen, the first after President Barack Obama offered reassurances the U.S. is continuing its counterterrorism operations in the country. The future of those operations has been in question following the collapse last week of Yemen’s government. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Oil Price Drop Troubles Texas Producers

As oil prices have fallen over the past several months, drilling operations have slowed in some parts of the United States - including Texas, the state that surpasses all others in energy production. The Lone Star State’s energy output has been boosted in recent years by development of resources trapped deep below ground in the Eagle Ford shale deposit, which stretches across south central Texas. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Karnes City, Texas, the drop in oil prices has created concerns,
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid