Deposits outside of mainland China are in high demand
The rare earth elements (REE) are a group of 15 lanthanoid elements (atomic numbers 57 to 71), plus scandium and yttrium, which exhibit a range of special electronic, magnetic, optical and catalytic properties. Rare earth elements are divided up into light (LREE) and heavy (HREE) groups as follows:
Light Rare Earths: lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), samarium (Sm).
Heavy Rare Earths: europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium(Tm), ytterbium (Yb), lutetium (Lu), yttrium (Y).
Rare earth elements are found as oxides, carbonates and phosphates, but are commonly referred to as rare earth oxides (REO). They are found in a variety of minerals, but are most abundant in bastnasite, xenotime and monazite ores and are associated with alkaline intrusive rocks and carbonatites.
World Reserves and Production
World reserves of rare earths are estimated at 110Mt (2011): the largest reserves are located in China (55Mt), followed by Russia (and Commonwealth of Independent States) (19Mt), USA (13Mt) and India (3Mt). Processing and separation of rare earths into the individual metals is a complex process. China holds almost all of current world processing and separation capacity, supplying approximately 95% of the world's rare earths.
Mountain Pass (California, USA): Mountain Pass is a bastnasite deposit, first mined in the 1960 for Eu for T.V sets. A major US$781M modernisation and expansion project (Project Phoenix) is currently underway, including the upgrade of a rare-earth separation plant. In early 2012 the reserves were increased to 18.4Mt at a grade of 7.98%, containing 1.3Mt of REO. After completion of Project Phoenix phase 1 (end 2012), production capacity will reach 20,000tpa of REO, reaching 40,000tpa after phase 2 (2013).
Mount Weld (Australia): Mount Weld consists of two deposits, the Central Lanthanide Deposit (weathered monazite ore) and the Duncan Deposit (churchite, xenotime, monazite ore). The 2012 resource estimate for Mount Weld is 23.9Mt at a grade of 7.9% REO, containing 1.9Mt REO. The project includes a planned processing and separation plant located in Kuantan, Malaysia.
Rare earths are used in mature markets (such as catalysts, glassmaking, lighting and metallurgy), using mainly La and Ce and accounting for 60% of consumption; and in newer high-growth markets (such as battery alloys, ceramics and permanent magnets), using mainly Dy and Nd and accounting for 40% of consumption. Examples of the wide-ranging end uses include: magnets for hybrid vehicles and wind power generation, UV excitation of rare earth phosphors in flat screen displays, wavelength shift for X-ray imaging, and fluid catalytic cracking for gasoline production.
There is no global rare earth market, but local and regional markets for individual rare earths in separated, highly refined forms. Prices within China are significantly lower than for international markets, therefore China strictly limits export volumes. Rare earth prices significantly rose in 2011 due to reduced export quotas from China, sparking concerns about access to supplies outside of China. As a response, prices fell in late 2011 due to decreased demand. Unwillingness of producers within China to reduce rates then stabilised prices at a high level. In 2012 there is likely to be pressure on rare earth producers to reduce prices, with supply and demand depending on the global economy and growth.