Rare earths rank among the most sought-after raw materials in the world. They are mainly mined in China. They do also occur in several other parts of the world but the mining of rare earths is often combined with very high barriers. The mere fact that all ore deposits contain a small amount of radioactivity, leads to the point that states do not grant the required mining rights.
Thus, the world remains in a certain dependence on China, even though our modern life could not work without rare earths. No iPod, no smartphone, no computer, no flat screen, no hybrid vehicle, no electric car and no wind turbine can be produced without rare earths. In a wind turbine alone, there is up to a tonne of rare earths being used. There is hardly an IT product which can be produced without these raw materials. Rare earth elements are the driving force of the modern age, rare earths might even be the oil of the future.
What are rare earth elements?
The chemical elements of the 3rd group of the periodic table as well as the Lanthanides belong to the rare earth elements group. Only the radioactive element Actinium is exempted from this group.
Following metals belong to the group of rare earths, coming from the 3rd group of the periodic table: Scandium (atomic number 21), Yttrium (39) and Lanthanum (57)
Added to those are the Lanthanides:
Cerium (58), Praseodymium (59), Neodymium (60), Promethium (61), Samarium (62), Europium (63), Gadolinium (64), Terbium (65), Dysprosium (66), Holmium (67), Erbium (68), Thulium (69), Ytterbium (70) and Lutetium (71).
The elements cerium, lanthanum, neodymium and praseodymium are rated among the light rare earth elements due to their characteristics. Their percentage in the ore is up to 98%. Accordingly, the percentage of the remaining fourteen elements is extremely low.
Where are rare earth elements used?
Cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, yttrium and samarium are of greatest industrial significance. The first two elements are very important for catalysis. Catalytic converters in auto-cats and reforming catalysts in the petro chemistry would not work in a familiar way without cerium or lanthanum. The mass product glass is also based on the use of cerium.
However, during the last 10-15 years more and more applications have been found which are allocated to the high-tech sector. No modern life would work without rare earths. All electronic devices need rare earths at different points. It often is a mixture of the 17 elements named above. Moreover, there are several rare earth elements installed in cars. Permanent magnets, loaded with rare earths, are needed wherever mechanics have been replaced. Whether electric windows or power steering — rare earths are needed wherever high performance shall be linked to minimum geometry.