“Rare earth” has emerged as one of the more controversial topics in world geopolitics. It often makes its way into the international spotlight. So what’s this topic about and why does it draw so much attention? Rare earth elements are minerals that are somewhat rare (surprise!). They are also very valuable for certain processes and economic areas.
Actually, the rare earth minerals themselves are not exceptionally rare. However, they are rare in relation to how easily they can be mined or found in economically exploitable amounts. The elements include:
- dysprosium (Dy),
- cerium (Ce),
- erbium (Er),
- lanthanum (La),
- europium (Eu),
- holmium (Ho),
- gadolinium (Gd),
- lutetium (Lu),
- neodymium (Nd),
- promethium (Pm),
- praseodymium (Pr),
- samarium (Sm),
- thulium (Tm)
- scandium (Sc),
- terbium (Tb),
- ytterbium (Yb)
- yttrium (Y).
Other metals are just as useful and essential for electronics, such as gold and silver. However, they are not as hard to extract. As such, they are not usually considered rare earth metals, even though some of them, like gold, are in fact very rare! The terminology can get confusing but will start to make sense as we go over the topic.
Currently, most rare earth metals and minerals are found in China. The Chinese are currently the largest producer of these rare earth minerals. They have at various times used the metals to exert political influence over other countries, such as the United States. Rare Earths trade disputes have been somewhat common over the last few years.
China controls roughly 97 percent of the trade of rare earth minerals. A few years ago, the United States, Japan, and the European Union alleged that China was using its control of rare earth metals to detrimentally affect the production of electronic equipment in other countries. China restricted the trading of these minerals through the use of quotas. The World Trade Organization found this to be in violation of international trade laws.
What Are Rare Earth Minerals Used For?
Rare Earth minerals can be used to create many things, such neodymium magnets. These exceptionally strong magnets can be used to create many things, such as hard drives, motors for electronic tools, and numerous other devices.
Rare earth metals contain many unique properties that are essential for electronics. When it comes to advanced electronics, magnets, controlling electrical properties, like amps and volts, and various other things, these properties are essential. You can find a whole wealth of metals inside your electronics, should you care to open them up.
The details are rather messy and complex. However, the unique properties of rare earth elements are essential for magnets, batteries, controlling the flow of electricity, and numerous other technologies. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to make modern electronics without these essential minerals.
Many emerging technologies, such as electric and hybrid cars are possible only because of these rare earth minerals. As electronics proliferate, these minerals and metals will only become more and more important.
Why Are REM So Important for Nations?
Essentially all of the applications of rare earth metals involve electronics. It’s not just about gadgets, however. The electronics sector is essential for a wide range of things. When China tried to restrict the exports of rare earth metals, leaders in other countries were worried about more than their industries. The quotas could have actually negatively impacted national security and a wide range of other things.
Think about it, most weapons systems now rely heavily on computers and other electronic components. This is true of jet fighters, helicopters, naval ships, missiles, and just about everything else. If China was able to restrict the production and use of electronics, it could threaten national security.
Luckily, the World Trade Organization sided with Japan, the U.S. and the European Union. In 2015 China dropped its export quotas. If not, a trade war might have ensued, which would have probably brought the global economy to a halt. The issue was that serious.
The Future of Rare Earth Deposits
Now, many countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Brazil are looking for ways to exploit their own rare earth deposits. Finding the minerals isn’t so difficult, but finding them in economically exploitable amounts is difficult.
Extracting rare earth minerals can be very damaging to the environment. Since the metals are spread out so thinly, a lot of resources must be gathered and processed to extract them. Huge fields of ore and earth must be gathered, and the minerals must then be extracted from them. This can cause massive disruptions to local ecosystems.
For this reason, developing countries and countries with lower environmental standards are leading the way in rare earth extraction. Simply put, many countries don’t want to have to deal with the environmental damage caused by the extraction process. This has also made the entire rare earth industry a rather hot topic. It’d be impossible though for the global economy to function without them.