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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Rare Earth Overview Supply Chain and Price: “Cradle to Grave” the Whole Life Cycle Approach

Critical mass -rare earth elements." 01 January 12, Materials World Magazine -Members only feature- by Prof. Animesh Jha’s is an excellent succinct overview of the wide and complex fields involving Rare Earth Elements,(REE’s)  Jha provides pointers and answers to many aspects in his near “cradle to grave” approach.

The issues at hand

“There are constant warnings about the risks of exhausting supply of vital resources, including the impact on our way of life. Professor Animesh Jha, from the Institute for Materials Research at the University of Leeds, UK, examines the sources of rare earth elements and the research driving their use in emerging technologies.” 

Prof. A. Jha provides pointers and answers to the following 5W’s type questions
on REE:

What they are, why they are important and to whom, what is global demand now and in the future (when), past present and future price evolution, based upon recent results and sustainability consideration in terms of resources and competition for energy, renewable energy.  

What they are: Fig1 below shows their position in the periodic table of elements (interactive memory refresher link)

Fig2 RHS. shows the relative abundance in the earths crust (not the ease of  economical exploration and mining)


-Electron Configuration               Nuclear Structures.

Why they are important and to whom
                       -Motivation for Change and Innovation.

Prof. Jha focuses our attention on the essential role played by REE in a modern sustainable economy, quote: ”The REE supply chain (directly) affects three main sectors of the world economy –, 2. health, and 3. digital and indirectly via 1 and 2 impacts upon the natural and built environments, and therefore on long-term climate change.” A powerful motor for growth is: “the world’s desire for developing cleaner and more energy efficient magnetic and electronic devices, including: displays, computer hard drives, wind turbines, fuel cells, hydrogen storage materials, efficient high-power lasers and amplifiers for materials processing and optical communication systems...” 

“Scientifically (and this is an important factor to achieving successful results) the 17 REE’s are inspiring due to their rather unusual combination of properties, manifested by their electronic and nuclear structures. This explains why they have found a multitude of applications in technology.” ( as above list)

We can safely deduce that such materials are promised an impressive long-term future due to their role in the "indispensables devices of modern life" and the coming “green technology”.

What is (cf. Fig3). Global Supply and Demand, production tonnage, evolution and projection, relative supply share and market share  )

“China is the current major player in the supply of these elements.” Indeed this situation has stimulated energetic response from the rest of the world-ROW (JOBS?) in order to avoid or at least attenuate the probable OPEP like position held by China.  

How to alleviate resource availability_Solutions.

Prof. Jha makes a clear case for finding new sources of REEs and for recycling them due to their importance in order to achieve a sustainable economy.

His analysis is succinct but all main issues are introduced, His arguments are based upon market dependence, technical, geological and mining considerations of these not so rare but unevenly distributed minerals and last but not least politico-economic issues.

Western Europe, with limited rich natural resources the REO (rare earth oxides) supply tends to focus on recycling, especially from materials at the end of life.

JOBS and Training for R and D, Minerals Exploration, Mining and Materials, Industries and Commerce.

“Although recycling REOs is an important area for growing new types of commercial activities, it is unlikely to meet the rising demands in the energy and digital sectors”. (I translate this as a source of much needed SUSTAINABLE JOBS. 

“If Europe focuses on research and development for cleaner technology based on REEs, there might be a joint opportunity to work with major mining companies outside China (95% of REE mineral sources) for creating healthy competition and industry.” 

I guess there is an excellent opportunity for Jobs here– I recently learned that an old university classmate, instead of taking a well earned retirement, decided to take a position with as Senior Project Manager with a Canadian Rare Earth Exploration Company member of The Rare Earth Industry and Technology Association, RITA,based in Colarado,USA.

The EU and naturally the UK situation are focused upon:

-Critical materials for the energy and transport sectors (wind turbines, hybrid cars, hydrogen storage, catalytic converters in auto-motives and fuel cell devices, and solid-state lighting are listed

-Need to create research and development capabilities and new opportunities for REE business is strongly recommended by UK’s Chemistry, Materials, and Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTN-Innovation Strategy) KTN-Innovation Strategy Board_Free sign to browse and contribute:


Development of research and development capability in the UK and the rest of western Europe has already started.

REE Companies (UK)

Companies Processing Industrially RE Minerals UK
- Less Common Metals Company in UK is a major rare earth metal producer, now part of  Great Western Minerals Group Ltd.



Process steps from Ore benefication to application and market through Oxide, Metal, and Alloy (Fig 4. opposite)

- Metalysis Limited exploits the The Fray-Farthing-Chen (FFC) Cambridge Process which is a new process for the extraction of metals and alloys from their solid oxides by molten salt electrolysis. (cathodic dissociation of metal oxides for electrowinning of metals)
(Fig 5) The process has a high potential. Initial step up to industrial scale-up has been encouraging with much sought after lower cost Titanium for defence and transport applications. 

Rhodia in France  (member of the  Belgian Solvay Group) is a major player in Rare Earth earth production and marketing. ( Rhodia has recently reached agreement(s) with China Rare Metals and Rare Earth Co., (Dec 12, 2011) with China Rare Metals and Rare Earth Co., Ltd. which is the wholly-owned subsidiary of CHINALCO aiming at integrating and developing the rare earth industry in China.

2 Key features of emerging trends in REE Process Metallurgical research in the UK according to Jha are :

    1. - The long history of hydrogen storage and magnetic materials research at the University of Birmingham, led by Emeritus Professor Rex Harris, has now been successfully used in recycling neodymium magnets through a Technology Strategy Board project 



    2. -   The FFC Cambridge Process has led to commercial exploitation by Metalysis Ltd., UK. The highly desirable electrochemical technique is used for further purification of the RE Oxides  RE and RE metals mixture into component metals or alloys, including the production of RE magnetic alloys. The range of Metal Oxides and Minerals is not limited to Rare Earths but can be used to process many otherwise difficult to process metals

NB.  For the student or professional reader wishing to pursue  FFC Cams process work and Electrowinning in general many papers are freely available via internet eg.

NB.    EU-France: Recycling Rare Earth Magnets
or again 

Prof Jha’s own pioneering work and approach read in rare elements from waste

“Professor Jha said that not capturing these rare earth by-products will soon no longer be an option. “Worldwide richer grades of titanium dioxide minerals are disappearing fast which means we have to process lower grades of titaniferous minerals and extract the REO as co-product and not waste them.”

Valuable rare-earth raw materials extracted from industrial waste stream  15th Dec 09

A related approach to determine valuable resources from industrial waste is underway at Durham Uni by The Geochemical Reclamation of Industrial Minerals & Elements (GRIME) research group. (reminds me of our mineral 

 Resources from Waste

A longer article entitled "Not costing the Earth - unconsidered waste materials" in 01 January 12, Materials World Magazine, cf below.


It is impossible to contemplate a future without rare earth elements. 

Although there is a research initiative within the EU that is inviting bids for basic research and development in extending knowledge, which aims to supersede the performance of REO- and metal-based devices. If successful, it will be a disruptive technology with a time-scale of market entry for such technologies of at least 10 years. 

In the meantime the new and emerging REO must progress within the EU to support industry.

Geological survey and exploration must continue within the EU and with trading partners for developing novel means of mining and mineral beneficiation. 

Deep-sea mining, which carries significant risk and expense. Such exploration carries incalculable environment cost, concerning the use of energy intensive equipment and disturbance of the sea bed that is likely to release trapped greenhouse gases.

The only viable option that remains is to continue exploring terrestrial sites for REEs, recycle, and develop new scientific understanding employing nano-science for economising the use of such sought after materials.

(Please consult the original paper for full article)


Excellent Comprehensive Website and Indepth Professional Bibliographic Resources

The Geologists too are hard at Work

They also provide advice by asking the question: “Are there alternatives to mining rare earth elements?”

From the RoyalSociety for Chemistry (RSC)  entitled  Critical Thinking

"Last October, China started building the world's biggest off-shore wind farm in Bohai Bay, a few hours from Beijing. The country is 

constructing wind farms on an unprecedented scale - surely good news given its insatiable appetite for coal. But each megawatt of 

power a wind turbine generates requires up to one tonne of rare earth permanent magnets"


Critical mass - rare earth elements

01 January 12, Materials World Magazine, Feature

Ions shine on - uses of rare earth ions

01 January 12, Materials World Magazine, Feature

Rare earth resource

01 June 10, Materials World Magazine, Feature

On the surface - preparation of rare earth metals

01 January 12, Materials World Magazine, Feature

Rare earth recovery

01 August 11, Materials World Magazine, Feature

Rare on Earth? Strategically important metals and education

03 March 11, Materials World Magazine, Material matters article

Not costing the Earth - unconsidered waste materials

01 January 12, Materials World Magazine, Feature

Just how resourceful are we?

04 December 11, Materials World Magazine, News article

High Purity Cr sources for Superalloys

Energy for th Future:Phil.Trans.A-Vol. 365, N° 1853 / April 15, 2007, curtesy The Royal Soc. London

Engineered foams and porous materials: Phil Trans A. Vol 364, N° 1838 / 06 curtesy_The R Soc. Lond