Science News

Elements at Risk

Tue, 13th Sep 2011

Amy Chesterton

‘Rare earth’ elements are necessary for most modern technologies.  But our supply of these metals is at risk.

The British Geological Survey has analysed the ‘supply risk’ of economically valuable elements, and have created a "league table" of at-risk elements.  An element was given a high risk score if there were few mines producing the elements, and if a large percentage of supply is sourced within one country. For example, China produces 97% of the rare earth elements, which could lead to a shortage if exportation was stopped. 

Someone with a phone and a cameraAmongst the highest risk are elements such as the rare earths, which are used in most modern technologies, along with antimony, tungsten and niobium which are used in fire retardants, drill bits and flat-screen displays.  A total of 52 chemical elements and element groups were analyzed, because today’s technologies require elements right across the periodic table.

The rare earth elements came 5th on the list of most at risk.  As a group, the rare earths have similar chemical properties and are often difficult to separate, but their unique properties are critical for the overall functionality of many digital age products.

Professor Frances Wall from the Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, explains where rare earth metals are used in technology, “...your computer, your mobile phone, your low-energy light bulbs, your hybrid cars, catalysts for cracking petroleum - you won’t make any oil without those rare earth catalysts, … they are in all the technologies around us, maybe just in very low quantities, but they’re there, and those technologies won’t work without them, [and] they’re not easy to substitute”.

Also at risk is the platinum group used for catalytic converters, niobium used for high strength high alloy steels and indium used for all flat-screen displays.

Contrary to their name, the rare earths are relatively abundant.  The lack of mines is a result of China selling the elements cheaper than the competitors, and effectively forcing them out of the market.  But the cost is rising and so is the need for more mines.  There are several potential mines around the world and two opening this year, in the USA and Australia.

The British Geological Survey hopes that the list might be used by policy makers and possibly by consumers in the future to guide which products they buy.

Click to hear Professor Frances Wall discuss the mining of rare earths

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It is clear from the article that there is no real risk in terms of dwindling reserves -- it is more a matter of a (hopefully temporary) glitch because of market factors.

I had been surprised by the article because I had known that we have huge reserves of rare earth minerals here in Australia. It would really just be a matter of getting mines quickly on line when the economics is right. damocles, Thu, 15th Sep 2011

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