Supply Crisis For Rare Earth Minerals?
China currently produces 95% of the global supply of rare earth minerals. As the name suggests these are not commonly occurring minerals. Why should we be interested in these minerals? Many new high-tech devices rely on these minerals. The elements are critical for he manufacture of low-carbon devices such as wind turbines, solar panels, lasers and electric cars. The key properties of this set of minerals are magnetism, luminescence and strength. The minerals are chemically quite close and occur in the lanthanide group in the periodic table with atomic numbers from 57 to 71. They are known as lanthanides as they are all chemically similar to lanthanum (atomic number 57). In general, the elements occur spatially with the light lanthanides in the upper part of the Earth’s crust, with the heavier members deeper in the Earth’s mantle. They are concentrated in China and in California, United States of America (USA). The price has favoured Chinese production over the last few decades with American production largely shutting down in the 1980s. As a result the Chinese have gained almost a monopoly in rare earth minerals and have recently reduced production and the export. Prices have increased several times over during the last few years. China has cited environmental concerns for the fall in production. Extraction is has a high environmentally impact. There have been heightened concerns about the future availability of rare earths according to the US Geological Survey: mainly because of the control that China holds on the supply of the minerals. China is now a major consumer of the minerals and there are generally low stocks of these minerals.
Both the European Union (EU) and the USA have concerns over the concentration of these resources in one country. The EU identified rare earth minerals as being on a “critical raw materials list in 2010” which identified the 14 rare earth elements to be at risk from supply constraints. The US are investing in research into rare earth production (see reference ). This may mean the re-opening of mines in the US but there are environmental risks associated with mining the rare earth minerals. The EU has published a report that reviews sources of rare earth minerals and highlights Greenland as having a large potential to supply such minerals. In reality this potential is around 3% of global supply whilst other large potential suppliers include Brazil which represents 37% of global potential. Next is China at around 25%, followed by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) which account for a global potential of over 13%. Clearly the potential of Greenland is not as large as these other countries.
The next year will see increased demand to obtain these rare earth minerals, mainly from regions and countries other than China. There will be continued demand for the minerals in new clean technologies. With the ice retreat continuing in Greenland there may be more opportunities to develop mineral reserves including the rare earth minerals.
 US to build $120m rare earth research institute.