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Not so rare earths

Posted 01/12/2010 by KatieJ

So would you prefer to have the bad news first or the good news? Last week, the web news resource Terra Daily carried the report that ‘experts say rare earths headed for 2011 supply crunch’. The following day came the cheering news that ‘rare earth elements in US not so rare’. So what’s the truth?

According to Australian experts, demand for rare earths has soared as a result of the popularity of smartphones and low power light bulbs, just as China – which produces 95% of them – is limiting exports in order to satisfy its own domestic market. ‘We have a classic supply and demand crisis. Under normal conditions the global demand exceeds supply in about 2011,’ Professor Brent McInnes from Curtin University is quoted as saying.

The US Geological Survey (USGS), however, now estimates that there are roughly 13m t of rare earth elements (REE) in the US alone – the first time that the organisation has carried out a nationwide estimate of these elements. While acknowledging that many of the sites have yet to be proven, the USGS notes that at recent domestic consumption rates of around 10, 000 t/year these deposits have the potential to meet US demands for several years into the future.

The REE are a group of 16 elements spanning Sc to Lu, used in high tech applications from iPods to fluorescent light bulbs and wind turbines. Some 96% of REE produced globally comes from China, which slashed exports by 40% this year – sending prices soaring as a result, TerraDaily reports.

The problem it turns out is not that these elements are particularly rare but that they are expensive to extract and produce in a form that industry wants. Now that China has slashed exports, producing them elsewhere has started to look more economically attractive. If only someone had thought about it sooner. For as Mark Smith, ceo of US mining company Molycorp is quoted as saying on Planet Ark just days ago: ‘Global supply and demand will remain out of balance for the foreseeable future.’

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