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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus 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.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid