Rare Earth Metals

Rare Earth Metals and Rare Earth Elements are 17 chemical elements which consist of primarily of 15 lanthanides together with scandium and yttrium.  Rare earth metals were first found in the 1700’s in Sweden, near the town of Ytterby resulting in yttrium and many of the other rare earth metals having names derived places in Sweden, and throughout Northern Europe.

Rare earth metals are primarily found in:

  • Alkaline to peralkaline igneous complexes
  • Pegmatites associated with alkaline magmas
  • Pegmatites associated with carbonatite intrusives
  • Perovskite mineral phases
  • Mantle-derived carbonate melts
  • Hydrothermal deposits associated with alkaline magmatism

Contrary to their name, not all rare earth metals are exceptionally rare.  Infact, certain rare earth metals are amongst the most plentiful elements, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.  However, some rare earth metals are truly rare, such as promethium, of which only 500 grams are estimated to exist in the entirety of the earth’s crust.

The term rare refers to their density rather than their abundance.  Unlike other metals and minerals which are mined from large seems such as coal or tin, rare earth metals are found in minute densities within rocks which makes mining rare earths much more challenging and expensive.

What are the uses for Rare Earth Metals?

Rare earth metals are essential to many of today’s products and industries.  From mobile phones to the batteries that power them, from televisions to the satellites that carry their signals, from refrigerators and microwaves to the solar panels that power them, many industries depend upon rare earth metals to continue supplying the products consumers demand. Rare earths metals also pay a significant role in everything from magnets, to power stations, to defense systems.

For example, lanthanum is essential to the batteries that power our many of our modern products, enabling our mobile phones to be lighter and smaller, and our electric cars to go further, and our power generation grid store latent supply more efficiently.  Lanthanum is also used in camera and telescope lenses as well as carbon lighting applications, such as studio lighting and cinema projection.

Cerium is used in catalytic converters in automobiles which are now widely adopted to reduce emissions of carbon, with the element enabling catalytic converters run at high temperatures and plays an essential role in the chemical reactions. Together, lanthanum and cerium are also used in the process of refining oil from crude and other petro-chemical processes.

Neodymium is used to make small but powerful magnets which are used in speakers and computer hard disk drives. Magnets containing neodymium are essential in many industries, including power generation, wind turbines and electric cars.

Praseodymium is used to create extremely strong composite materials which are used in some of the most hostile environments, such as jet engines and the glass in welders’ visors.  Gadolinium is plays an important role imaging technologies, from X-rays and MRIs in hospitals to the television we have at home.

Europium is named after a continent with numerous countries and languages, and the rare earth metal has as many uses.  Europium is used create the red color in LED screens, enabling us to see a full range of vivid colors on our televisions or smartphones, as well as the visible light in fluorescent lighting.  Due to its practicality rather than its name, Europium is the material that provides the phosphor marks on Euro notes adding a layer of security to notes used widely in the continent it was named after.

Scandium is used in countless consumer products, from televisions to energy-saving lighting, and in industry to produce specialist compounds and composite materials.  Dysprosium and holmium are used magnets, lasers and lighting and are used in industries from consumer electronics to nuclear power productions.

With the continual advance of technology, new uses for rare earth metals are discovered every day.  As a result, there is a continual and increasing demand for a variety of rare earth metals to be supplied to the market, and in recent years demand has outpaced supply significantly.  The main limiting factor to supply in most cases is not that these minerals are scarce, but that they are extremely difficult to mine using traditional techniques and are often found in challenging operational environments.  Osaka Bay Mining believes that by harnessing the power of technology and operational know-how, we are able to discover and develop productive mining operations to capture a significant share of the rare earth metals market.

Production of Rare earth metals

Prior to the 2nd World War, rare earth metals were primarily mined in Brazil and India, although in the 1950’s South Africa assumed dominance.  By the 1960’s California’s Mountain Pass mine was producing significant amounts of Europium as the importance of rare earth metals to the emerging consumer electronics industry became apparent.

China entered the market in the 1980’s producing significant quantities of rare earth metals as global demand was increasing exponentially on the back of numerous applications in rapidly expanding markets such as defense, aviation, lighting and electronics.  China became the dominant producer in the 1990’s and into the current millennium increased its hegemony in rare earth metals production to in excess of 97%.

Such was the dominance of China, together with the low cost basis of its mines, that many previously successful operations such as Mountain Pass were unable to compete.  However as demand continued to grow fueled by a new generation of consumer electronics and industrial application for rare earth metals, China began limiting exports resulting in a 500% rise in prices.  Countries reliant on advanced manufacturing such Japan and the USA took note and have subsequently made it highly financially attractive to firms to explore and produce rare earth metals within their borders.

At current levels the opportunity for low-cost producers outside China is pronounced, with demand continuing to increase and outpacing global supply, there is an immense market opportunity for innovative techniques for mining rare earth metals.  With Osaka Bay Mining’s innovative technology in exploring, analyzing and extracting rare earth minerals from locations which were previously inaccessible, we are able to capitalize upon the gap between supply and demand.