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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs