Rare earth metals or rare earth elements (REEs) are a relatively abundant group of seventeen elements found in the periodic table. REEs are currently used for alternative energy technologies and national security applications. REEs are being used extensively in almost every possible advanced technology products (cell phones, televisions, DVDs, electric vehicles) and in many low-technology products (oil refining, cigarette lighters, incandescent lighting).
China holds a near-monopolistic share of 60% on mining and processing of the rare earth metals, but it may become a net importer of REEs in the future. This is due to the emergence of new technologies and critical applications which can be very profitable in the future. The dependence on rare earth elements for much of the world’s future growth, especially for alternative energy development, cannot be undermined.
The rare earth metals market is driven by factors such as high demand in the current and emerging applications, increasing demand of clean energy, initiatives taken by governments and associations, and increasing economy and population trends. The factors affecting the growth of this market are be the fluctuating costs of the rare earth materials, dominance of China in the rare earth metals market and illegal mining in rare earth mineral ores.
Asia- Pacific is the top region in terms of total rare earth material consumption due to rapidly increasing demand in China which accounts for approximately 60% of global rare earth consumption. North America ranks second with followed by Europe.
The rare earth metals industry has been dominated by Chinese companies. China contributed towards 85% of the total production of the rare earth metals in 2011. Since Chinese Government has introduced various production quotas on the companies due to environmental issues, the dominance of China has faded slightly. Companies such as Molycorp Inc. and Lynas Corp. have started operating their rare earth mines which will see their production of rare earth metals increase substantially. This will further lessen the dependence of the rare earth metals on China.
Rare earth metals were comparatively cheaper before new applications were discovered for its use. This created a discrepancy in the supply and demand chain of the rare earth metals. This was due to an enormous increase in the prices of the metals. Earlier the metals were not as critical as they have become over the past five years. Hence, a lot of them were wasted due to inconsistent demand and supply. Presently, the situation is different for the rare earths metals. Many critical industries including the green technology and defense use a lot of rare earth metals. The incredible price increase of the metals in 2011 has made these metals even more critical and valuable for other nations including the U.S. which has led to a global drive for recycling.
Recycling is a method to decrease the criticality of the metals and provide a secondary source of supply for the key metals. The existing recycling rate for the rare earth metals is 1% which presents a significant opportunity for important recycling efforts. Recycling not only will provide a secondary source of supply but will also have a positive impact on the environment with decreased mining. Furthermore, this will also minimize the impacts of waste and toxins entering water sources.