Rare Earths: The Real Unobtanium

Mammoth CavePhoto: Daniel Schwen

In business, technical or news journals you read today, new technologies are at center stage. Technologies from Blackberries and iPhones to hybrid and pure electric vehicles are aimed at making us more efficient and energy independent or, in some other way, providing us with a better quality of life. It’s a green renaissance. And leading the way is alternative energy.

All these technologies, working as they are to make life better in a world of depleting energy fuels, have opened up a new sector of the economy: the extraction, processing and refinement of rare earth elements. It’s rare earth elements like scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and 13 other unobtaniums that make high-quality miniaturized technologies possible. These two economic sectors, technology and rare earths, are in a delicate state of balance as the supply for raw materials meets the demand for both technologies and for job creation.

Geode InteriorPhoto: Phantom87

Currently, China supplies about 97% of the world’s demand for rare earths. However, as China’s economy grows, there are increasing pressures to satisfy its own domestic demand for rare earth elements. China is pushing efforts to produce more value-added products. It is essentially saying “It’s better to manufacture a processed magnet than to export the basic raw material.” The natural extension of that line of reasoning is “Why just magnets? It’s better to manufacture the complete motor assembly or automobiles than to export the magnet?”

To address this dwindling supply of rare earths and keep growing their own technologies and economy, the world’s traditional industrialized nations will need new mining and processing facilities for rare earths in order to move forward. New rare earth mines in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Africa, are planned to begin operations by 2014. But, along with mining, full spectrum, soup-to-nuts solutions will have to be built to meet North American, Asian and European needs. Building such an industry from raw material to marketable product could take up to 15 years, according to experts.

Rare Earth ElementsPhoto: USDA

A first step in the process of growing a rare earth sector is Boeing’s remote sensing technology. Mounted in satellites and aerial imaging, remote sensing is able to confirm the existence of both “light” and “heavy” rare earth deposits in places like Idaho and Montana. Computers take pixels from photo images and convert them to digital code, creating large databases. By manipulating the numerical codes, new images can be generated that highlight desired features. By corresponding ground-based sampling to individual pixels and subsequent numbers, geologists can scan huge areas of land for commercial grade quantities rare earth ores.

Heavy ore deposits can have up to 6% concentration, which means that for each ton of ore mined, only 120 lbs of elements are able to be refined. With these kinds of numbers, these valuable elements are indeed “rare earth.”

For more information see Going Forward: The Delicate Supply Balance and the Growing Demand for Rare Earths and
Boeing’s Aerial Sensory Tech to Aid Search for Rare Earths