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Rare Earths

 

Overview

 

Rare earths is a term commonly used to describe the 15 chemically similar, lanthanide elements which appear together towards the bottom of the Periodic Table. Two other elements, yttrium and scandium, which have similar chemical properties, are often also referred to as rare earths. The oxides produced from processing rare earths are collectively referred to as rare earth oxides. Although rare earths are relatively common in the earth’s crust, they often do not occur in high enough concentrations (or occur along with high levels of radioactive elements) to make their extraction economic. The oxides that are produced from processing the rare earth elements constitute the basic material that can be sold to the market or further processed into metals or alloys.

 

Rare earths can be divided into “light” rare earths and “heavy” rare earths and both are present to varying degrees in all rare earth deposits. Rare earths are therefore recovered and processed together before sequential separation into individual rare earth elements. Prices for individual rare earths in pure oxide form can vary significantly with, generally speaking, the heavy rare earths trading at higher values. It should be noted the highest value heavy rare earth elements, namely europium, terbium and dysprosium, are contained at elevated levels at Zandkopsdrift by comparison to a number of other similar deposits being evaluated globally. It is also noteworthy that both the thorium and uranium content of the Zandkopsdrift resource are relatively low, at average grades of 178ppm and 47ppm respectively.

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Why are Rare Earths Important?

 

Rare earths possess certain chemical and physical properties which when synthesized make them indispensable in many high-tech applications. They are widely recognized as being among the most valuable and strategically important minerals for the continued development of a modern technological society. Among the key properties of rare earths are their high thermal and electrical conductivity, magnetism, luminosity, catalytic and optical properties. In several industrial sectors, traditional materials are approaching their technological limits and product development engineers are increasingly turning to new materials, such as rare earths, to maintain the current pace of high-tech advancement within increasingly stringent environmental and energy efficiency guidelines.

 

Compact fluorescent lightbulbs, which require europium, terbium and yttrium, use up to 75% less energy than traditional incandescent lightbulbs. With 20% of global electricity used for lighting, there is huge scope for increasing efficiency. Energy efficiency is recognised by the International Energy Agency as being essential if carbon emission reduction goals are to be met, with efficiency having the potential to achieve half the required adjustment versus a business as usual scenario.

 

A further 45% of global electricity is used in electrically driven motors. There are significant opportunities for increased efficiency in, for example, motors in fridges, air conditioners and washing machines by using more efficient motors. The most efficient motors require the rare earths neodymium and praseodymium coupled with small amounts of dysprosium and terbium. They are used in compact neodymium permanent magnets, sometimes called “neo magnets”, which are used in “brushless permanent magnet motors”. The advantages of brushless motors are longer life spans, little maintenance, smaller sizes and higher efficiency. Legislation mandating improvements in the efficiency of white goods is driving manufacturers to use more efficient motors which contain rare earths and further drives demand.

 

Rare earth metals are used in almost all hybrid and electric vehicles. For emaple the Toyota Prius uses significant quantities of rare earths both for its electric motor and its battery. The Prius uses highly efficient and compact neo-magnets in its motor and generator to improve efficiency. The Prius also uses lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and praseodymium (a mix called “mischmetal”) in its nickel metal hybrid battery(Ni-MH). The use of hybrid electric vehicles is driven by strict, and increasing, fuel efficiency standards at a federal level in the United States and by European legislation.

 

Just as rare earths are essential for saving energy, they are also increasingly required for producing green energy. Most new wind turbine designs use neo magnets because they are lighter, more efficient, and easier to maintain than the traditional generators used in wind turbines. The International Energy Agency recognises wind energy as being one of the most mature and cheap green electricity technologies and it is being invested in heavily in Europe, China and America, driven by legally binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions.

 

As rare earth metals are inseparable from energy efficiency and clean technology they are sometimes referred to as “technology metals”. Large increases in rare earth production are required to meet expected demand as the United States Department of Energy outlined in its “Critical Materials Strategy” report.

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