More attention needed around rare earth elements

Article By: John Walko

The rare earth element supply situation is exacerbated by global political tensions, as the vast majority of these vital minerals originate from China.

The supply chain issues and price hikes that have frustrated the global electronics industry have mostly focused on semiconductors and have been well documented here.

But there is an equally important issue that arguably is even more complicated for the long-term electronics industry – that surrounding rare earth elements.

These complex compounds can impact the production of a variety of products ranging from batteries, cell phones, laptops, hard drives, displays, lasers, electric vehicles, defense equipment and medical diagnostic devices.

The supply situation for these vital minerals is worsened by global political tensions, as the vast majority of the 17 rare earth materials originate from China, which is the only country with the end-to-end capabilities of mining, refining and processing. the elements and is expected to enjoy a global share of 55% of minerals, and still more than 85% of refining capacity.

Other large countries where many of them are exploited include the volatile economies of Myanmar, Vietnam, Brazil, India and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where China is by far the largest source of financing of operations.

The most important rare earths for the electronics and battery manufacturing industries include praseodymium, terbium oxide, neodymium, yttrium, dysprosium, erbium and lanthanum. In the past year, the prices of these materials have increased by 65-100%.

It should be pointed out, however, that in a sense their name is incorrect – some of these rare earths are relatively abundant. The problem is more that the deposits of the elements are difficult to mine on a commercial basis.

Recent estimates suggest that in the past year, the United States imported 80% of China’s rare earth minerals, while Europe depends on 98% of its supplies for these vital minerals.

Global supply of rare earths to the EU
(Image credit: FRAME, for Forecasting and Assessing Europe’s Strategic Raw Materials Needs)

Indeed, China’s strategic position in the supply and prices of rare earths is that for many years it has applied strict quotas, and some say politically influenced. The country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology recently announced that it will increase the quota for this year by 20%, the highest on record at 168,000 tonnes, in a bid to alleviate the situation of extremely tight supply.

But China has shown that it can also use its dominance in less innocuous ways. For example, last year it imposed a temporary ban on exports to Japan when countries disagreed over the territorial integrity of the disputed Senkaku Islands.

China has also tried to politicize the supply situation as part of its trade war with the United States. In retaliation, the Biden administration recently began taking action to protect the supply of certain rare earths, but acknowledged that it would take many years to create something resembling a national supply chain.

No wonder these materials – although they are typically used in small quantities in most of the applications mentioned above – have become another part of the ongoing trade rivalry between the United States and China.

Some have compared the situation with rare earths to the kind of US stranglehold on China in semiconductor supply and technology. In some ways, this is valid. But the reality is that China is unable to meet its own demands for rare earths. Indeed, recent estimates suggest that in recent years, China has significantly reduced its exports, straining the global supply chain.

The sector that feels most exposed to the current situation is that of electric vehicles and many other green technologies, especially wind turbines.

To illustrate how crucial some of these elements can be in the industry, let’s take the example of erbium. It is an essential ingredient in the optical communications industry: without it, optical fibers could not function. Indeed, for long distance links, it is necessary to amplify the signals, and erbium plays a crucial role to allow the necessary transmission.

The material is embedded within a short section of the fiber and the element’s excitable ions are pushed into a high energy state by irradiating them with a laser. The light signals traveling along the fiber stimulate the erbium ions to release their stored energy as extra light of exactly the same wavelength needed to amplify the signals.

In the semiconductor industry, hafnium in its oxide form acts as an essential electrical insulator. In some cases, it can significantly improve the performance of standard transistor material, silicon dioxide, by lowering the leakage current and at the same time increasing the switching speeds.

In consumer electronics, indium, in one of its alloy forms, indium tin oxide, is an essential ingredient for achieving high electrical conductivity and optical transparency. It is therefore widely used in flat screens and televisions.

Dysprosium has become a rare earth essential for the manufacture of magnets. For example, when mixed with iron and terbium, it forms the Terfenol D alloy, which can change shape in response to a magnetic field. Importantly, it is also able to withstand high temperatures, which makes it a very useful material for magnets deployed in turbines and hard drives.

As we have already noted, Europe is in a situation of very low supply of rare earths. The only country in the region with significant deposits to exploit is Greenland, which reportedly produced 1.3% of the world market last year and has reserves of around 1.5 million tonnes, or 1.3%. of total world reserves.

The European Commission has also offered funding for the sector, along with sales quotas, prompted by the European Raw Materials Alliance, which was formed last year.

And Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market recently noted that the EU is far too dependent on others – mainly China – for the import of permanent magnets, as well as the rare earths that compose them. He responded to the Association’s call for the provision of 1.7 billion euros to support the sector.

“The committee’s in-depth review of Critical Supply Chains and Key Technologies has highlighted the EU’s high level of foreign dependence on the inputs needed for our green and digital transition,” said Breton .

The report called for building rare earth recycling capacity in the region, as well as greater cooperation with resource-rich countries.

Breton may be right. It seems strange that, despite their obvious importance, there has been almost no effort to try to recycle them. There is a thriving business globally in the recycling of other metals, such as tin, lead and aluminum.

Last month, Mariah Chuprinski of Pennsylvania State University wrote an excellent article that highlighted how rare earths can be recovered from electronic waste.

This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.

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