Rare earth elements are a group of seventeenchemical elements that occur together in the periodic table. The group consists of yttrium, scandium, and fifteen lanthanide elements (lanthanum, cerium, thulium, ytterbium, praseodymium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, holmium, erbium, and lutetium). The seventeen rare earth elements are found in all rare earth elements deposits; however, their distribution and concentration varies. These elements are referred as ‘rare,’ as it is not common to find them in commercially feasible concentrations. Rare earth elements are broadly classified into two categories: light rare earth elements and heavy rare earth elements.These have varying levels of uses and demand. Mineral deposits of rare earth elements are usually rich in either light rare earth elements or heavy rare earth elements; they rarely contain both in significant quantities. Among rare earth elements, demand for lanthanum and cerium is the largest in the world. Rare earth elements are classified based on various properties such as catalytic, magnetic, electrical, chemical, and optical. Thus, rare earth elements,often referred as ‘seeds of technology’ by the Japanese, exhibit multiple properties. This makes make them suitable for usage in a wide range of end-user industries.
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The permanent magnet industryisthe largest end-user industryfor rare earth elements. Lanthanum and cerium are used in the manufacture of catalytic converters. Thesehelp convert the pollutants in engine exhaust systeminto non-toxic compounds. Rechargeable batteries made from neodymium, lanthanum, cerium, and praseodymium (combined with manganese, nickel, cobalt and/or aluminum) are used in car batteries in hybrid electric vehicles, electronic devices, and power tools.Lanthanum and cerium are used in the manufacture of catalytic converters, which convert pollutants in engine exhaust systeminto non-toxic compounds. Electric and hybrid cars can contain rare earths compounds which areworth many dollars, which is double that found in a standard gasoline vehicle.The manufacturing of battery involves use of rare earth compounds. Rare earth elements are also used in regenerative braking systems and electric traction motors. These motors consist of powerful magnets made from neodymium and dysprosium. Europium, terbium, and yttrium are rare earth elementsthat are used widely in the electronics industry to manufacture LCDs and color TVs. Cerium reduces transmission of UV light, while lanthanum increases the glass reflective index for digital camera lenses. Dysprosium, yttrium, neodymium, praseodymium and terbium have the greatest exposure to segments such asrechargeable batteries, phosphors, permanent magnets, and polishing agents. This segments are also the fastest growing segment for rare earth elements. Thus,the wide range of end-user applications is leading to higher usage of rare earth elements across the globe.
The global market for rare earth elements is expected to expand at a healthy rate in next eight years. China is major producer of rare earth elements. The country produces approximately 94% of the global rare earth elements. China is also the leading consumer of rare earth elements in the world; the country accounts for about 60% of global consumption. Though in coming years the monopoly of China in global rare elements market is expected to witness a decline.
Some of the major companies operating in the global rare earth elements market include Arafura Resources, Alkane Resources Ltd., Avalon Rare Metals Inc., Quest Rare Minerals Ltd.,Greenland Minerals and Energy Limited, China Rare Earth Holdings Limited, Lynas Corporation, Great Western Minerals Group Ltd., Rare Element Resources Ltd., Molycorp Inc.,and Frontier Rare Earths Limited.