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Rare Earth Metals

Context:

Recently, Swedish state-owned mining company, LKAB,  announced that it has discovered more than one million tonnes of rare earth oxides in the northern area of the country. This is the largest known deposit in Europe, the company added.

  • Currently, no rare earths are mined in Europe and the continent mostly imports them from other regions. According to a report in the BBC, 98 per cent of rare earths used by the European Union were sent by China.

Relevance:

GS I: Geography

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What are rare earths?
  2. What are rare earths used for?
  3. Rare Earth Minerals Reserves – India Ranks 3rd in the World

What are rare earths?

  • Rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides, and have similar chemical properties.
  • The 17 rare earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).
  • Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”.
  • One of the rare earths, promethium, is radioactive.

What are rare earths used for?

  • These elements are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.
  • Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
  • Rare earth elements are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones.
  • Cerium, the most abundant rare earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.
  • In recent years, rare earths have become even more important because there has been an increase in demand for green energy.
  • Elements like neodymium and dysprosium, which are used in wind turbine motors, are sought-after more than ever as wind mills across the world continue to grow.
  • Moreover, the push for switching from internal combustion cars to electric vehicles has also led to a rise in demand for rare earth magnets — made from neodymium, boron, and iron — and batteries.

Rare Earth Minerals Reserves – India Ranks 3rd in the World

  • India has the third-largest reserves of rare earth minerals in the world. Due to radioactivity of monazite sands, Indian Rare Earths Ltd under the Department of Atomic Energy is the sole producer of rare earth compounds.
  • Globally, China has a monopoly over rare earth, after USA’s recede in this industry due to high environmental and health concerns.
  • China had once, almost shivered the Japanese economy by halting the export of rare earth elements.
  • India is also blessed with some crucial rare earth minerals like zirconium, neodymium etc., available in plenty in monazite sands.
  • This could contribute to Indian export markets if utilized properly. However, owing to various reasons such as cost reduction due to high production (economies of scale) in China, lack of demand in the domestic market, lack of domestic processing technologies, the production of rare earth minerals has depleted over years.
  • Most of the products that use rare earth minerals as raw materials are imported. Despite rare earth minerals having high value add the potential for export growth, inadequate processing technologies have made India suffer.

-Source: Indian Express


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