General Studies IGEOGRAPHYKey Natural Resources

Rare Earth Metals


Recently, the US has proposed a law aiming to end China’s alleged “chokehold” on rare earth metals supplies.

Rare Earth Metals:

  • The rare-earth elements (REE), also called the rare-earth oxides, or the lanthanides 
  • These are a set of 17 nearly-indistinguishable lustrous silvery-white soft heavy metals. 
  • Samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), yttrium (Y), cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm).
  • Scandium and yttrium are considered rare-earth elements because they tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides and exhibit similar chemical properties, but have different electronic and magnetic properties.
  • The 1985 International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry “Red Book” (p. 45) recommends that lanthanoid is used rather than lanthanide. The ending “-ide” normally indicates a negative ion. However, owing to wide current usage, “lanthanide” is still allowed and is roughly analogous to rare earth element.
  • The first rare-earth mineral discovered (1787) was gadolinite, a black mineral composed of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon, and other elements. This mineral was extracted from a mine in the village of Ytterby in Sweden; four of the rare-earth elements bear names derived from this single location.
  • In pure form, these metals tarnish slowly in air at room temperature, and react slowly with cold water to form hydroxides, liberating hydrogen. They react with steam to form oxides, and at elevated temperature (400 °C) ignite spontaneously and burn with a fierce colorful pyrotechnic flame.
  • These elements and their compounds have no known biological function. The water-soluble compounds are mildly to moderately toxic, but the insoluble ones are not
  • The rare earths have diverse applications in electrical and electronic components, lasers, glass, magnetic materials, and industrial processes, but since they do not occur as base metals or in lump or visible quantities like iron or aluminum, their names and properties are unfamiliar in everyday life. One of the most familiar may be unusually powerful neodymium magnets sold as novelties.
  • Despite their name, rare-earth elements are relatively plentiful in Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million, more abundant than copper. All isotopes of promethium are radioactive, and it does not occur naturally in the earth’s crust; however, a trace amount is generated by decay of uranium 238. They are often found in minerals with thorium, and less commonly uranium.
  • Because of their geochemical properties, rare-earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated in rare-earth minerals.

Significance of Rare Earth Metals

  • They have distinctive electrical, metallurgical, catalytic, nuclear, magnetic and luminescent properties.
  • They are strategically very important due to their use of emerging and diverse technologies which cater to the needs of current society.
  • Its usage range from daily use (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-end technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables).
  • Even futuristic technologies need these REMs (For example high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues).
  • The global demand for REMs has increased significantly in line with their expansion into high-end technology, environment, and economic areas.
  • They are extremely important for many modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers, and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, health care, environmental mitigation, national defense etc.
  • Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, they help in technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; therefore give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.

What are the uses of Rare Earth Metals in Defense?

LanthanumNight vision goggles
NeodymiumLaser range- finders, guidance systems, communications
EuropiumFluorescents and phosphors in lamps and monitors
ErbiumAmplifiers in fiber-optic data transmission
SamariumPermanent magnets that are stable at high temperature, Precision-guided weapons, White noise production in stealth technology

Rare Earth Elements in Emerging technologies

Lightweight MagnetCars, Electronic, Wind turbine, Speakers
CatalystAutomotive catalyst, clean diesel, oil refining
Hybrid VehiclesElectric Motors, Generators, Hybrid Batteries
Polishing PowdersTv, Computer screens, Plasma, CRT, optical lenses
Glass additiveCRT, small optical lenses, Phospor, TV and Computer
CeramicMilitary uses

Analysis of supply demand of REE

  • Currently, China has control over 94% in producing and mining REMs and further china has very high natural reserves for these. As per some recent reports, China is even buying these reserve in others countries and regions to have a monopoly over production for a very long time. And due to these very reasons, it has become very critical metal for India since India is not having enough resources and it further suffers technological constraints in mining its own reserves of REEs.
  • A study, conducted by the think-tank Council on Energy Environment and Water, identifies 12 minerals out of 49 that were evaluated as ‘most critical’ for India’s manufacturing sector by 2030. These are beryllium, chromium, germanium, limestone, niobium, graphite, rare earth, rhenium, strontium, tantalum and zirconium. Other minerals like limestone and graphite, while currently abundantly available in India, are deemed ‘critical’ because extractable resources could be scarce in the future.
  • For others, the report says, India is 100 percent import-dependent for seven out of 12 identified critical minerals and does not have any declared resources for them, except light rare earth (found along with monazite sands) and beryllium.

Rare Earth Minerals Reserves in India- Ranks 5th in the World

India has the fifth-largest reserves of rare earth minerals in the world. Due to the radioactivity of monazite sands, Indian Rare Earths Ltd under the Department of Atomic Energy is the sole producer of rare earth compounds. Globally, China has a monopoly over rare earth, after USA’s recede in this industry due to high environmental and health concerns. China had once, almost shivered the Japanese economy by halting the export of rare earth elements. India is also blessed with some crucial rare earth minerals like zirconium, neodymium etc., available in plenty in monazite sands. This could contribute to Indian export markets if utilized properly. However, owing to various reasons such as cost reduction due to high production (economies of scale) in China, lack of demand in the domestic market, lack of domestic processing technologies, the production of rare earth minerals has depleted over years. Most of the products that use rare earth minerals as raw materials are imported. Despite rare earth minerals having high value add the potential for export growth, inadequate processing technologies have made India suffer


Rare Earth Minerals – Strategic Importance to India

  1. Rare earth minerals are very crucial for India in order to reduce the energy burden. It is an important component in the manufacture of hybrid vehicles, fuel cells and LEDs.
  2. It is indispensable in the manufacture of advance defence equipment.
  3. Essential for purifying the rivers flowing across the country.
  4. It is used in the manufacture of mobile phones, computers, digital networks, optical fibre cables and other IT gadgets which would help in our Digital India programme.

What is the future use of Rare Earth Metals?

  • The global demand for automobiles, consumer electronics, energy-efficient lighting, and catalysts is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade. REMs are critical raw material for future of these technologies/industries.
  • Rare earth magnet demand is expected to increase due to the rise in demand for rechargeable batteries.
  • New developments in medical technology are expected to increase the use of surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, and positron emission tomography scintillation detectors.
  • Future military and navy arsenals may utilize REMs for better efficiency and handling.

Way Forward

  • India needs to create a new Department for Rare Earths (DRE), which would play the role of a regulator and enabler for businesses in this space.
    • Currently, mining and processing has been largely concentrated in the hands of IREL (India) Limited, a PSU under the department of atomic energy.
    • Its progress and capacity to produce rare earths, while growing slowly, is nowhere close to international REE conglomerates.
  • Indian companies can be encouraged to form such junior exploration businesses in the Indian Ocean Region to prospect for REEs and feed value added products into the Indian market.
    • Most governments in this region have mining and exploration friendly policies and welcome investment. India has strong historical, cultural, business and Diaspora links in this region that has developed over centuries of trade and migration.
  • India can also coordinate with other agencies to partner directly with groupings such as the Quad, building up a strategic reserve as a buffer against global supply crises.

Source: The Hindu

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