Why Are Rare Earth Metals Important?

You’re wondering why I’m asking, why are rare earth metals important? After all, egg prices have tripled, & avocado prices have hit a 24-month high. What are rare earth elements anyway? If they’re so rare, what are some common uses for rare earth metals? Why should we care when we’re worried about a recession?

Why are Rare Earth Metals Important_Eggs and avocado
Two of my favorite foods!

Let’s take a step back. What are rare earth elements? (REE)

I like avocadoes_Louie copy
Can we stick w/ avocadoes?
Avocados on sushi
Can you tell I was hungry while I wrote this post?

WHAT ARE RARE EARTH ELEMENTS? (REE)

Rare earth elements (REE), rare earth metals (REM), & rare earth oxides (REO) are terms for 17 of the over 118 elements on the periodic table. 

The REEs are the pink boxes on the table below, plus the two I circled in red.

periodic table rare earth elements
REE circled in red

RARE EARTH ELEMENTS AREN'T REALLY RARE

Rare Earth Metals are found in abundance across our planet. Rare earths are more expensive to mine than most metals....

...because rare earth metals tend to occur together & are difficult to separate from one another.

The term rare earth elements or rare earth metals is somewhat misleading. What is rare?

REDHEADS! Natural redheads occur in 1-2% of our population. (Yes, I wanted to use this adorable photo of our boy below but this is a valid fact!)

Leucism is also rare. It is a condition in which part of an animal’s normal coloration is missing. It’s due to the lack of several kinds of pigment, not just melanin. (like in albinism)

LEUCISM VERSUS ALBINISM

The way to distinguish between leucism & albinism? 

The eyes have it!

 In albinism, eyes are pink. If you look at the tiger below, his eyes are black. Hence leucism.

The deer? I couldn't get close enough to tell!

BACK TO FACTS ABOUT RARE EARTH METALS

The takeaway here is that rare earth elements (REE) are also referred to as rare earth metals. (REM) 

Rare Earth Metals are found in abundance across our planet. REM are simply more expensive to mine than most metals. 

Rare Earth Elements_Ian
REM! I love geology.
RARE EARTH METALS
Don't even ask how long it took me to make that last photo!
Barbells aren't made w/ REM
REE or REM
Any of a group of chemically similar metallic elements comprising the lanthanide series, scandium and yttrium.
44 page US Geology pdf
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Okay, now we know what rare earth metals are.  And that I interchange the terms rare earth metals & rare earth elements with reckless abandon.

What is the big deal? Why are rare earth metals important?

What are Rare Earth Elements
REE or REM

WHY ARE RARE EARTH METALS IMPORTANT?

I do the research so you don't have to Ozzie typing
GOOD QUESTION!

Rare earth metals are important because of their applications!

COMMON USES FOR RARE EARTH METALS

Rare earth elements are essential for many high-tech products such as smartphones!
97% of Americans own a smartphone.
PEW smartphone stats
Terbium gives our LCDs their green color.
Terbium is also used in low-energy light bulbs & solid-state drives (SSD).
Terbium
Red color on your screens?
Europium oxide (Eu2O3), a europium compound, is widely used as a red phosphor in television sets.
More on Europium
Indium tin oxide makes your screen work as a touchscreen
Smartphones also need Neodymium, Dysprosium, Lanthanum & Praseodymium to function.
And to think the Romans once thought of salt as white gold!
A Magnetic Resonance Imaging System (MRI) is medical imaging diagnostic equipment.
MRIs can be used to obtain images of any section of the human body.
An MRI is extremely sensitive to soft tissue lesions so effective for the diagnosis of cancer, tumor, cerebrovascular, and nervous system diseases.
TQ Gadolinium!
Gadolinium has paramagnetic properties – that means that when it moves through a magnetic field (such as an MRI), its temperature increases, making it useful to enhance the image quality in MRI scans.
Gadolinium & MRIs
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MORE COMMON USES FOR RARE EARTH METALS!

Lanthanum is one of the most reactive rare earth elements.
Lanthanum is used in the manufacture of specialized optical glasses including infrared absorbing glass as well as camera & telescope lenses. It can also be used to help make steel more malleable.
Neodymium
NdFeB magnets are widely used in radar technology, satellite communications, remote telemetry, electronic tracking, and electronic countermeasures.
To read more about space junk...I mean satellites, click below
Artificial Satellites
Neodymium, dysprosium & parseodymium
All 3 are needed for the motors in electric cars & also necessary for wind turbine production.
Look out, eagles!
Most modern defense technologies such as radar & sonar systems, precision-guided weapons, & cruise missiles require REE
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REE aren't just used for tech.
They're needed for pollution abatement, power generation, water treatment, even drug therapies.
Samarium
Used in the drug Quadramet, which relieves bone pain in patients w/ osteoblastic skeletal metastases
FDA info Quadamet
REE are used in the production of clean energy tech
to include advanced auto propulsion batteries, fuel cells, & electric motors.
EV!
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Now you know the answer to the question: why are rare earth metals important.

I only grazed the surface of some common uses for rare earth metals.

REM or REE –whichever term you prefer, direct our economy the way Stone Age flint was valuable during the Neolithic Era, or Aztecs once considered cacao beans more valuable than gold.

Chocolate is divine
I may be in the Aztec camp!

With all this importance of rare earth metals, coupled w/ the fact that rare earth elements are difficult & expensive to mine, will the world run out of rare earth metals?

Where do we mine our REEs anyway?

What about the horrible term we’ve all come to know,  ‘supply chain?’

And where did I get that fantastic dessert above?

Got to hear it to believe it_Kev
These are excellent questions.

WILL THE WORLD RUN OUT OF RARE EARTH METALS?

The United States has designated rare earth metals as 'critical materials'

'Critical Materials' are key components of products that are essential to the economic or national security of the U.S., & are susceptible to supply chain disruption.

REE report
In 2020, the US imported 100% its supply of the 17 rare earth elements
US Geological Survey of REE
Yes, you read that correctly.
ONE HUNDRED PERCENT
The biggest supplier of REM is China
China produces 85 % of the world's REM. China also has history of restricting trade for political reasons.
The U.S. has fallen WAY behind in REE production
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President Biden’s goal is for half of all new cars sold by 2030 to be electric.

But given the shortage of REE, that's like asking Top Chef contestants to make a main dish w/ two tennis balls and a peanut.

The demand for these critical materials is set to skyrocket by 400-600 percent over the next several decades!

For materials used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries, demand will increase by even more—as much as 4,000 percent. 

SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES OF RARE EARTH ELEMENTS

So. What are we doing about the supply chain issues w/ rare earth elements?
REE supply chain issues
Considering that...
40 percent of the world’s REE reserves are located within the borders of the U.S. & its ally nations yet China remains the # 1 producer
REE stats
Dr Lawrence Meinert
deputy associate director for energy & minerals at the US Geological Survey says that supply disruption is likely to be a more immediate consideration than supply exhaustion
Meinert articles
President Biden has left Executive Orders from the last administration in place...
executive order
...assessing supply chain risks & asking for solutions
And further issued EO 14017 on February 24, 2021
Supply chain risks
OK, we have executive orders, but what ARE we going to do about our dependence on REE imports?
Our dependence on cell phones? I'm am guilty too.
Mobile phone ownership
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CHALLENGES OF EXTRACTING OUR OWN REM

Famous old guy _famous young guy_Alex
Challenges? 2 heads are better than 1!
Companies that dig for other resources might start extracting rare earth elements from deposits of different materials.

Roasting is a common process used to extract REE.

Roasting is energy intensive and requires exposure to concentrated acids.
Roasting Process
We could someday obtain these elements as byproducts from power plant coal ash & coal mining waste.
REE
can be found in concentrations higher than other metals, even gold and silver, but remember....
The disperse locations of REE make them uneconomical to mine & extract
Plus, these elements chemically bond to each other & to non-metal elements.
This makes the extraction & separation of REE expensive, difficult, & fraught with environmental risks.
REMs like Europium, Terbium, & Yttrium can be found at the bottom of the ocean
That's not easy either!
To read about a cool deep ocean animal, click below!
Octopus!
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SUPPLY CHAIN SOLUTIONS FOR RARE EARTH METALS (Potential)

Science to the rescue! (of course.)

Let’s start with acid mine drainage.

Ian _ Louie hammock_READ
THE PART WE LIKE! RESEARCH
Acid mine drainage
The acidic water that forms when surface water (rainwater, snowmelt, pond water, etc.) & air are exposed to iron sulfide, a solid waste byproduct of coal mining.
EPA info
What does awful acid mine drainage have to do with extracting REE?
In 2020, scientists from Penn State developed a two-stage treatment process that allowed them to recover higher concentrations of rare earth elements from acid mine drainage.
Penn State results
How cool is that?
Use gross pollutants to extract REE!
Acid Mine Drainage & REE
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How about a protein-based sensor to thwart supply chain issues so we won’t run out of rare earth metals?

Chemical Reactions_Winner of my book
THAT SOUNDS COOL...LIKE THIS BOOK!
Penn State researchers developed a new protein-based sensor that changes its fluorescence when it binds to REE
Protein sensor
The protein sensor would facilitate mining & recycling of these elements.
Lanmodulin
They used this fluorescent protein because it binds to lanthanides
Remember that the lanathides are 15 of the 17 rare earth elements
This protein opens the door to inexpensive methods for selective sensing of individual lanthanides in the environment
lammodulin as a sensor
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Let’s look at ion exchange!  A chemical process called ion exchange could extract REEs in a safer manner than other extraction methods.

WIll the world run out of Rare earth metals?_Dan
SAFER SOUNDS GOOD.
Ion Exchange
Ion exchange is a reversible chemical reaction wherein an ion (an atom or a molecule that has lost or gained an electron and thus acquired an electrical charge) from a wastewater solution is exchanged for a similarly charged ion attached to an immobile solid particle
Ion Exchange
Remember how REE are bonded to other elements?
Essentially, REEs are sticking to the surface of molecules found in coal!
Researchers used a special solution to pluck the REE out
REE & ION XCHANGE
The solvent is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly
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How about using salmon semen?

You read that correctly.

Of course, that is not a salmon in the next pic. I admire the enthusiasm, but let’s back away from the lizard!

Don't Get Aggressive_alice
I'VE GOT THIS!
It appears that salmon semen has a sufficiently high affinity to adsorb REEs
Salmon Semen Study
This method is more effective w/ the larger REE
Dysprosium (Dy) and Lutetium (Lu)
I'm about done here.
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If we need to compete for salmon with bears, the world may run out of rare earth metals after all!

Make Sense of Science_Ian_Kenai River AK
Take on those bears? Funny.

We have no intention of taking salmon from bears! Or semen from salmon!

Subscribe and make sense of science_Alex
Nope. Not us!

WILL THE WORLD RUN OUT OF RARE EARTH METALS?

Maybe the Rice University researchers have a viable solution
They applied a flash Joule heating process to coal fly ash & other toxic waste
It had to get pretty hot!
3,000 C (5,432 F) in a second! But at least they didn't use caustic acids.
They more safely extracted rare earth elements essential to modern electronics & green technologies.
Rice technique here
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WHY ARE RARE EARTH METALS IMPORTANT?

We rely on rare-earth elements to produce many necessary items, including computers, smartphones, rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, magnets, and chemical catalysts, not to mention medications, green technologies, and manufacturing equipment.

And this demand will only grow!

Common Uses for Rare Earth Metals_Electric Cars (EV)
This chart only encompasses EV!

It’s time to build our own resilient supply chains because rare earth metals are important to every aspect of our lives!

Here’s the 250-page report that maps the supply chain issues for not only rare earth metals, but pharmaceuticals & other key items.

Would you like to go to Mars? _Ian
We love REM because we want to go to Mars! (click the pic to learn about how to go to Mars)

Kudos to all the amazing researchers trying to devise ways to negate our REM supply chain issues and do so using environmentally friendly methods.

Professionals with knowledge of the REE industry are in critically short supply! Tell your kids, nieces, nephews, or grandkids to check into environmental science as a career!

Louie says subscribe to Make Sense of Science
I want to study environmental science!

I admit that I would not want to live without my smartphone. And now that my kids bought me an apple watch, I’m even more tied to tech and closing those activity rings, colored with rare earth metals! 

Plus, how could I research and write these amazing blog posts without rare earth metals?

Make Sense of Science_Subscribe_Sue Berk Koch_Kev
We love your blog posts, Sue!

If you have an apple watch and want to share your work-outs with me, I’m game! I have 2 exercise friends & am hoping for more. Gotta love that peer pressure.

Do you think you’d want to live w/o tech? 

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Fadima Mooneira
May 4, 2022 6:17 am

Wow… what educational post on rare earth metal. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

chelseakay01
chelseakay01
May 4, 2022 6:38 am

Great post! I love reading about these cool elements, though the supply chain issues are disquieting. I hope our scientists can come up w/ viable solutions! Thanks for raising awareness.

Lisa's Notebook
May 4, 2022 6:41 am

As always, a really informative read, Sue. I love how you break things down and keep asking (and answering) questions. Although I feel I now know more about salmon semen than perhaps I needed to, haha!

Eva Apelqvist
Eva Apelqvist
May 4, 2022 7:17 am

Nice article about something I knew absolutely nothing about. Turns out those rare earth metals are pretty important. Thanks, Sue. Always fantastic science posts.

Jordanne || Ofaglasgowgirl
May 4, 2022 7:23 am

I’ve never thought about rare earth elements much, actually, I don’t think I ever have. What an in depth post you’ve created. I can’t believe materials for electric cars will increase by 4,000 percent!

aami06
aami06
May 4, 2022 7:39 am

Wow, what a great post. I wouldn’t want to get between those bears, either. Thanks so much, I learned a ton about rare earth elements.

Mike
Mike
May 4, 2022 8:01 am

As with everybody else I knew nothing about rare earth elements. Great post. Keep it up. Always love the pictures of the kids and Louie.

eileen
eileen
May 4, 2022 9:09 am

Wow – I didn’t realize we import 100 percent of these rare metals! Lots to learn (as always) in this post!

Unwanted Life
May 4, 2022 11:51 am

I hadn’t given rare earth metals much thought before. But your post got me thinking, is there a rare earth metal that just isn’t any better than any regular that already exists?

Siobhan (@veganbabelife)
May 4, 2022 1:10 pm

Great post thanks for sharing! Siobhan ♡ | Vegan Babe Life

readandreviewit1
May 4, 2022 1:34 pm

This was such an informative post! I didn’t know much about rare earth metals so this was really interesting to read – I didn’t know so many things used them! Hopefully we can find a way to make those more resilient supply chains! Thank you so much for sharing.

Melissa Kacar
Melissa Kacar
May 4, 2022 2:11 pm

This post is so interesting! Thanks for taking the time to share all of this information! I learned so much from this 🙂

Jaya Avendel
May 4, 2022 3:39 pm

I had no idea that rare earth metals played such a big role in smartphones and I was quite surprised to see that touchscreens are made possible by indium, so I loved learning something new whilst reading this article!

Charity
Charity
May 4, 2022 7:13 pm

This is such an informative read! Thanks so much for sharing all this. I learned a lot from this post!

ellegracedeveson
ellegracedeveson
Reply to  Charity
May 6, 2022 12:51 pm

This is such a interesting post, thank you so much for sharing it with us. I’ve defiantly learnt a lot and appreciate you educating us more on this matter. Xo

Elle – ellegracedeveson.com

Amazing Baby
May 6, 2022 12:10 pm

Wow! I learned so much from this post! Love all the interactive features, as well!

Crystal | http://www.amazingbaby.app

Corinne
May 6, 2022 5:20 pm

This is so interesting. I can’t say I’ve looked at a periodic table since school!

Corinne x
https://skinnedcartree.com

Penny
Penny
Reply to  Corinne
May 7, 2022 1:16 pm

Amazing post, I love it! I’ve been very interested in rare minerals as well as crystals so this was very informative for me. Thank you so much for sharing xx Penny / http://www.whatdidshetype.com

ruchirasarkar
May 7, 2022 8:29 am

Wow!! Great post. Thank you for sharing:)

Not-So-Modern-Girl
May 7, 2022 10:52 am

This is a really interesting post Susan, I love this information and I didn’t realise rare earth metals were so important. Thank you for sharing x

Not-So-Modern-Girl
Reply to  Susan Berk Koch
May 7, 2022 2:45 pm

That’s very true. Fascinating stuff x

Jodie | That Happy Reader
Jodie | That Happy Reader
May 7, 2022 3:24 pm

I like your writing style of answering in advance any FAQ! I agree that metals are a precious resource as is most other things on this planet of ours – yet another reason we need to take care of it. Thanks for sharing.

Hayley
May 18, 2022 4:12 am

Thank you for sharing such an informative post in such an accessible and entertaining way! 🙂

威而鋼哪裡買
June 23, 2022 3:53 am

Great post! I love reading about these cool elements, though the supply chain issues are disquieting. I hope our scientists can come up w/ viable solutions! Thanks for raising awareness.

Susan Berk Koch author

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