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

UN: 1 Million Somalis at Risk of Hunger

Group warns region is in dire need of humanitarian aid, with at least 200,000 children under age of five acutely malnourished as drought hits southern, central part of nation More

Human Rights Groups Allege Supression of Freedoms in Thailand

Thailand’s military, police have suppressed release of independent report assessing human rights in kingdom during first 100 days of latest coup More

Jennifer Lawrence Contacts FBI After Nude Photos Hacked

'Silver Linings Playbook' actress' photos were posted on image-sharing forum 4chan; Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into matter 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.
Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forcesi
X
September 02, 2014 12:58 PM
A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Internet, Technology Offer New Tools for Journalists

The Internet and rapidly evolving technology is quickly changing how people receive news and how journalists deliver it. There are now more ways to tell a story than ever before. One school in Los Angeles is teaching the next generation of journalists with the help of a state-of-the-art newsroom. Elizabeth Lee has this report.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.

AppleAndroid