Only a handful of years ago, rare-earth elements were an oft neglected and forgotten cul-de-sac of elements. Today, the landscape couldn’t have changed more, with over 120,000 metric tons produced worldwide in 2018 alone. So, what’s changed? Ben Smye, head of growth at online materials supplier platform Matmatch, digs down into this complex issue, looks forward to how the market might move and describes what these changes might mean for buyers and suppliers alike.

Rare-earth elements (REEs), sometimes called rare-earth metals, are a group of 17 metallic elements nestled near the bottom of the periodic table. The family encompasses the lanthanide group of elements from atomic numbers 57 up to 71, while also including yttrium and scandium.

As is often the case in science and engineering, the given name is somewhat counterintuitive and drawn from old convention. They’re not all that ‘rare’, in relative terms.

For example, in an average sample of Earth’s crust you’d expect to find twice as much neodymium as lithium, roughly three times as much as lead and over 21 times that of uranium. Even particularly scarce REEs are more abundant than elements not commonly referred to as ‘rare’. Thulium, for example, is comparable in abundance to cadmium, which sees extensive use in nickel-cadmium batteries and is up to seven times as abundant as silver.

What makes them ‘rare’ isn’t so-much the physical scarcity of them but rather how their geochemical properties cause them to be reasonably evenly distributed throughout the crust of the Earth. Instead of naturally concentrating in veins of ore (as is the tendency of many elements, such as iron and tin), the chemical similarity of REEs causes them to become mixed with the adjacent phosphate and silicate minerals.

These facts have two consequences in the mining industry. Firstly, the mining and production of REEs is mainly performed in expansive, uninhabited regions where the maximum surface area can be exploited. Secondly, the refining processes are long, complex and produce a lot of waste. The latter factor directly informs the former as large quarries, processing facilities and tailing pools require a lot of space, and are unlikely to impress any local residents.

The dragon’s hoard

For these reasons, REE production occurs mainly in expansive, sparsely populated areas such as the Australian outback and most notably China’s inner-Mongolia province. In 2015 it was reported that “China currently controls completely the mining activity, the enrichment technologies and metallurgy, and end-metal products of rare earths”.

With a view to loosening China’s grip on the market, Australia is teaming up with the USA to step-up production in Australian mines such as Nolan’s Bore and Mount Weld. It’s also been speculated that the USA’s novel suggestion to purchase the Greenland autonomous territory from Denmark was motivated by the region’s potential for REE production.

This has become quite the political hot-topic and the reason is that REEs have grown into a key strategic resource since the 1990s.

A lynchpin of modern tech

Well warned by historical commodity crises such as those in the 1970s, world leaders are understandably spooked by the notion of a single-supplier REE market — a particularly pressing concern in light of ongoing trade disputes between the USA and China that threaten markets with unpredictability.

REEs are employed in an incredible range of electronics and related components. Neodymium is possibly the best-known example of this, with neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnets being widely used as head actuators in hard discs, speaker and headphone diaphragm actuators, and as the magnetic component in permanent-magnet electric motors.

The other members of the group have similarly diverse uses. Many are used as vital catalysts in petrochemical and other chemical processes, as property-adjusting additives to advanced ceramic materials and oxides used as polishing agents in achieving the smooth finish modern touchscreens require.

To a tech consumer on the street, disruptions to REE production will increase the price and decrease the availability of the smart devices they enjoy. However, to the industry technician or politician, disruptions can have dramatic effects on economies and markets.

One such example of turbulence came in 2011 when China, then producing 97 per cent of the world’s REEs, clamped down on exports and started stockpiling. This led to a price-hike of around fivefold for dysprosium oxides that year, alongside similar increases for other REEs.

By diversifying worldwide REE production, the joint Australian-American project aims to preclude these market disruptions, alongside safeguarding the worldwide REE supply against any future politicking.

Another approach that’s just beginning to be considered is to circularise the REE economy. If REEs can be appropriated from refuse and reused, the political spiderweb is deftly avoided. This approach also addresses a subtle issue that arises in REE production — the mismatch between elemental abundance and industry demand.

REEs are often ‘co-mined’, meaning the similar chemistries of REEs, alongside the geochemical processes previously mentioned, cause rare-earth minerals to often contain multiple REEs in varying proportions. There’s no guarantee that the REEs produced from such minerals will be in the same proportions as are required by the market. It’s not in the mine’s interest to waste product, so markets are often flooded with co-mined biproducts when less-common REEs are in demand.

For engineers, buyers and designers working in these markets, steady price increases and decreases are quite workable, but dramatic shocks can bring significant difficulties that diminish quality standards and often drive companies into the ground.

One way to insulate a business against market shocks is to have well established relationships with suppliers, but simultaneously it’s important to know the market landscape and have options available. While the latter can take years to effectively develop, the former is becoming increasingly easy for businesses to manage using materials sourcing platforms such as Matmatch.

Matmatch is an online materials encyclopaedia, designed for suppliers, buyers and designers to easily find their ideal business partners. Not only does the platform allow design engineers to easily identify the verified properties of specific materials, but it connects engineers directly to suppliers. All suppliers are validated by Matmatch’s team, so we ensure the highest quality REEs.

Developments in the REE market might be complex, but the sourcing of the materials does not need to be. We expect that the demand for REEs will not shrink any time soon, and we can all but guarantee that the market will maintain its global complexity.