Geological Society of London: future supply of rare earth elements could be disrupted by technical, environmental and financial factors
While scarcity of rare earth elements (REE) in absolute terms is unlikely to be a concern, their future supply could be disrupted by technical, environmental and financial factors, according to a briefing note published by the Geological Society of London.
REE are increasingly being used in the production of low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines, electric traction motors and hybrid vehicles, as well as countless other applications from LCD and plasma screens to jet engines.
A June 2010 study by the European Union identified the REE as among the 14 mineral commodities most critical to the EU economy, but most deposits are located outside of Europe, with the majority found in China, the CIS (Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan), the USA and Australia. There is particular concern that the development and uptake of new green technologies may be constrained by the availability of raw materials.
There are environmental considerations too, with REE production using a great deal of energy, and most REE mines being open cast.
Demand for rare earth elements has increased by more than 50% in the last decade, and is expected to rise further. Geological scarcity in absolute terms is unlikely to be a concern. But the technical, financial and environmental challenges of establishing new mines could lead to disruptions in supply. Overcoming these challenges will take some time, as will reopening pre-existing mines. It is this which leads us to be concerned about future supply.—Professor Paul Henderson, Honorary Professor of Mineralogy at University College London, and chair of the drafting group.
The briefing note explores the properties, occurrence, extraction, supply and uses of REE. In outlining up to date information about REE and their future availability, it is intended to help inform debate among scientists, policy-makers, potential investors and industry players.