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Rare earths and automation technology - part 1

Rare earths - extraction and structural problems

Produktion of rare earths in China.

The media have been spreading: Rare earths are indispensable for high-tech but have become scarce after China as main supplier had reduced its exports; the availability of key components for high-tech and green products may be threatened. This is not wrong, however, there are structural problems that influence the supply situation of rare earths. These kind of problems are not or unsufficiently considered by the Media.

Extraction of rare earths – seventeenpede out of step

July 10th, 2012 - Rare earths consist of 17 metals and appear, as well known, not as rarely as their term suggests. So Thulim e.g., the rarest stable element of the rare earths, appears still more frequently than gold or platinum.1


These 17 metals „occur only simultaneously and can also only simultaneously be extracted“ states the Deutsche Rohstoffagentur (German Raw Material Agency).2


To this simple fact joins a second one with far-reaching impact: The proportions of the 17 metal oxides in the deposits are most different.3


It is usual to divide the rare earths into “light” and “heavy” elements. Most of the light rare earths have proportions of 90% and more in deposits while the heavy ones only show proportions between 1.4% and 4%.4


This fact creates a rather disproportional structure of supply providing larger quantities supplied of the ones but very low quantities supplied of the other elements at the same time. Furthermore the decomposition can hardly be standardized since each ore body is different needing a specific process.5


So the extraction of the rare earths resembles a seventeenpede being out of step moving disorderly.

Structure of supply and demand fits like two left hands

Applications of rare earths.
Source: REITA - Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association, 2009.

If the demand for rare earths would be just as disproportional as their supply, no problem would occur in this context. However, it is not like that. High-tech applications have needed light and heavy rare earths combined at the same time. That shows up also in the automation technology.


Permanent-field synchronous motors like the servo motor need the light element Neodymium (Nd) for high-magnetic effect and the heavy element Dysprosium (Dy) so that the strong magnetic effect keeps also at temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius.6


Micro engines for sensors or fixed disks require likewise Nd and Dy as well as Terbium (Tb, heavy element) and Praseodymium (Pr, light element).7


Fiber optics require the heavy elements Yttrium (Y), Terbium (Tb), Erbium (Er) and the medium element Europium (Eu).


Flat screen displays need the light elements Pr, Cerium (Ce) for brilliant colors, the medium element Eu and Gadolinium (Gd) as well as the heavy elements Y and Tb.


In the automobile industry hybrid and electric vehicles as well as the start stop automatic need the light elements Nd and Pr as well as the heavy ones Dy and Tb.


Wind and hydropower generation require likewise light (Nd, Pr) and heavy elements (Dy, Tb).


Apart from this by no means complete listing of the combined use of light and heavy rare earths many applications use only light or only heavy elements. The American Rare Earths Industry and Technology Association (REITA) compiles them descriptively.

Military applications of rare earths.
Source: REITA - Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association, 2009,

REITA’s listing provides also a lot of selected military applications of rare earths. Rare earths are used for process control and drive technology of drones, cruise missiles, destroyers, combat cars and bombs as well as for sensors and displays of night-vision devices or cockpits of combat aircraft. Also radar devices, sonar echoes of submarines and Geiger counters need rare earths.


It is obvious that the geologically caused supply and the economically caused demand structures fit together like two left hands. The outcomes of this are disproportional amounts of supply and demand as well as rising prices.


Prices and forecasted amounts of supply and demand are covered by the next chapters.

The prices of rare earths ignore environmental protection so far

The extraction of rare earths is a very intensive process. The ore bodies, from which the rare earths are separated, are very different requiring a rather user-specific as a standardized extraction.8 Furthermore the rare earths’ chemical similarity requests numerous process steps ranging from 100 to 1000 steps.9

Production of rare earths in China.
A worker pours the rare earth metal Lanthanum into a mould at a plant near Damao, China. Foto: Reuters/David Gray 2010.

These technical requirements may have been reflected in the rare earths’ prices, however, not the environmental protection.


With the production of rare earths environmental poisons for humans and nature arise including acid use and radioactivity.

Storage of rare earths and the subsequent pollution.
Pipes coming from a rare earth smelting plant spew polluted wanter into a vast tailings dam near Baotou, China. Foto: Reuters/David Gray 2010.

Large amounts of acids are implemented for extracting the rare earths from the ores. The industrial safety against these acids and their sustainable disposal belong to the production costs.


Most deposits of rare earths contain radioactive materials, in particular Thorium.10 Thorium is an alpha and a gamma emitter and therefore particularly dangerous when breathing and drinking.11 Usually it is conducted together with the released ores into a catchment basin. In Baotou, China, this „lake of the rare earths“ covers roughly 150 million tons overburden, 90,000 tons Thorium of them. That means an extreme endangerment of the groundwater and the breathing air. The TV station ARD, Germany, broadcasted via its channel “Panorama” a program about this topic in April 2011.12


Not just in China, in the USA too the extraction of rare earths led and leads to substantial environmental problems. In the Mountain pass mine in the USA, which were closed down in 2002, more than 7 million liters of radioactive water left in 1977 and have contaminated far sections of the San Bernardino County.13


Industrial safety and environmental protection extracting rare earths must be ensured. Since this is at present obviously not the case, also the prices of rare earths do not contain the costs of this protection yet. Their consideration will lead to higher prices of the rare earths.


This structural problem of the price level is to distinguish from speculation-driven price increases in the year 2011. Part 4 will discuss this later on.


Part 1: Rare earts: Extraction and structural problems

Part 2: Supply and demand until 2016

Part 3: Price problems with rare earths

Part 4: The role of China with rare earths

[1] Wikipedia, Rare Earth Element
[2] Elsner, Harald: Kritische Versorgungslage mit schweren Seltenen Erden - Entwicklung "Grüner Technologien" gefärdet? In: Commodity Top News, Nr. 36, hrsg. von Deutsche Rohstoffagentur (DERA) in der Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (BGR), p.1, September 2011
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] D.J. Kingsnorth, Meeting the Challenges of Supply this Decade, March 2011
[6] Elsner, Commodity Top News, No. 36, p. 2
[7] Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association (REITA), Commercial Applications for Rare Earth Technologies, 2009. Internet Likewise the further applications in this text.
[8] Kingsnorth, Meeting the Challenges, p. 6
[9] L. Levkowitz, N. Beauchamp-Mustafaga, China’s Rare Earth Industry and its Role in the International Market, issued by U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Backgrounder, p. 1
[10] Seltene Erden – Daten & Fakten, p. 2, issued by Öko-Institut e.V., January 2011
[11] Wikipedia, Thorium
[12] ARD program "Panorama" No. 739 from April 28th, 2011
[13] Seltene Metalle und Seltene Erden, Industry Report by Midas Research, April 1st, 2011, p. 20





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4 parts and 2 interviews