Articles

Rare Earth Metals: Relevance in the 21st Century

by Vinod Narayanan

History of humans is always centered on a “precious matter” chronologically. From the 14th to 18th centuries it was gold, silver, spices, and textile materials. From the mid and 20th century to the current period it is oil and petroleum products.

The simple criterion to label material as precious is that the availability of matter is proportionately too low to meet the rising demand.

By analysing the above-said criteria, it can be expressed that “rare earth minerals” can be the successor of fossil fuels not in purpose but in value.

A rare-earth element(REE) or rare-earth metal (REM), as defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, is one of a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium. 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. Rarely, a broader definition that includes actinides may be used, since the actinides share some mineralogical, chemical, and physical (especially electron shell configuration) characteristics.

The 17 rare-earth elements are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y). They are often found in minerals with thorium (Th), and less commonly uranium (U).

 

(Photo 1. Periodical Table)

Rare earth elements are used in a wide range of products having both civilian and military purposes like Smart Phones, Headsets/Headphones, Fertilizers, Electric vehicles, LCD/LED Screens, Rechargeable batteries, Windmills, energy-efficient light bulbs, DSLR and other Cameras, Missile surveillance devices, sophisticated artillery machines, fighter jet planes, satellites, lasers and whatnot.

Unlike oil reserves and despite their name, rare earths are more abundant on earth’s surface, but difficult and expensive to mine and extract cleanly.

Reserves are found in Canada, Australia, Brazil, USA, Vietnam, India and China.

China hosts one by third of the World’s processing capacity, more than 36% of the Global reserves are found in China and spread over three regions, province of Inner Mongolia, Southern provinces of Huanan, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, and the Province of Sichuan which was in the headlines of past week, because Chinese Premier Xi Jumping advised officers to speed up a railway line starting from Sichuan to a Tibetan location near to India’s Arunachal Pradesh.

(Photo 3. World map)

 

“The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths” Sentences said by Deng Xiaoping” former premier of China in 1992 express how the economic policy of the Communist party of China’s approach towards rare earths.

China’s current aggressive border and maritime policies are making the free world re-think towards trade deals with China, these rare earths are giving the Dragon an edge over negotiations as we saw in the trade war between the U.S and China. The U.S is the rank one importer of rate earth from China in terms of the quantity bought to satisfy the growing needs of the developed economy. China used this to gain a negotiating edge during the trade war between the Trump Administration and threaten to stop the imports if more trade sanctions are imposed on China.

Despite that, according to a ‘Reuters’ report, China uses economical methods and machines to mine rare earths but can cause permanent damages to the environment.

The free world has to find an alternative source that assures the availability of minerals inevitable for the economy and sustaining standards. Depending on a totalitarian regime like China for products may empower the reign to use it as a trump card over the free world.

India is one of the front runner nations in identifying the relevance of rare earths and founded a Public Limited Company in 1954 called ‘Rare Earth India Ltd.’ But it is much easier to mine and excavate rare earth out of the soil than Indian Red-tapism, there was development in this sector but inconsistent with the competitor.

Significant rare earth minerals found in India include ilmenite, sillimanite, garnet, zircon, monazite and rutile, collectively called Beach Sand Minerals (BSM). India has almost 35 percent of the world’s total beach sand mineral deposits.

IREL commissioned its largest division called Orissa Sand Complex (OSCOM)at Chhatrapur, Odisha. Today IREL operates these four units along with a corporate office in Mumbai and a unit located in Manavalakurichi of Kanyakumari district. It produces/sells six heavy minerals namely ilmenite, rutile, zircon, monazite, sillimanite, and garnet as well as various value-added products. From 1 May 2015, it started commercial operation of Monazite Processing Plant at Orissa to process 10000tpa monazite to produce 11220tpa of rare earth chloride, 13500 tri-sodium phosphate, 26tpa NGADU, etc. Similarly, the High Pure Rare Earth facility also commenced operations to refine pure rare earth compounds.

       (Photo 3. Indian map)

To end the monopoly of one nation in rare earth production which may divide this Globe economically in the future, the free world nations which have mineral reserves should join hands together and form an alliance. Like the ‘International Solar Alliance,’ an association of 121 Countries aspiring to utilize solar and renewable sources of energy. An alliance can be formed in similar lines that of ISA for retrieving rare earth and combine the synergy to extract the minerals without ecological impact.

About the Author:

Vinod Narayanan is a Civil Service Aspirant, a former IT Professional, and a law graduate who conducts freelance research in the subject ‘National Movements’. He has received Gujarat Sahithya Academy award ‘Certificate of Appreciation’ for his works.

 

One Comment

  1. Ajith Kumar S

    Informative as usual. Authors opinion for making an international alliance is practical and the most possible way to avoid race for the next oil that can divide economies.

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