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What is Rare Earths Minerals?

Context:

To counter India’s reliance on China for imports of critical rare earth minerals, industry has urged the government to establish ‘India Rare Earths Mission’.

Relevance:

GS-I: Geography (Distribution of Key Natural Resources, Mineral & Energy Resources), GS Paper-II: International Relations (India and its Neighborhood)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What are REMs?
  2. Heavy dependence
  3. India Rare Earths Mission

What are REMs?

  • The rare earths minerals (REM) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table in addition to scandium and yttrium that show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides.
  • The REMs have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. While named ‘rare earth’, they are in fact not that rare and are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust.
Strategic importance of REMs:
  • They have distinctive electrical, metallurgical, catalytic, nuclear, magnetic and luminescent properties.
  • Its usage range from daily use (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-end technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables).
  • Even futuristic technologies need these REMs (For example high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues).
  • Due to their unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties, they help in technologies perform with reduced weight, reduced emissions, and energy consumption; therefore give them greater efficiency, performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and thermal stability.

Heavy dependence

  • In 2019, the U.S. imported 80% of its rare earth minerals from China, the U.S. Geological Survey says.
  • The EU gets 98% of its supply from China, the European Commission said last year.
  • Amid the transition to green energy, in which rare earth minerals are sure to play a role, China’s market dominance is enough to sound an alarm in western capitals.
  • Rare earth minerals, with names like neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium, are crucial to the manufacture of magnets used in industries of the future, such as wind turbines and electric cars. And they are already being used in consumer goods such as smartphones, computer screens and telescopic lenses.
  • In 2021 the U.S. Senate passed a law aimed at improving American competitiveness that includes provisions to improve critical minerals supply chains.
  • U.S. aims to boost production and processing of rare earths and lithium, another key mineral component, while “working with allies to increase sustainable global supply and reduce reliance on competitors,” Deputy Director of the National Economic Council in 2021.
  • The best hope for boosting American production can be found at the Mountain Pass mine in California.
  • Once one of the major players in the sector, the mine suffered as China rose and ate up its market share, aided by Beijing’s subsidies.
  • China is expected to remain dominant for some time to come, but experts say that if recycling is scaled up, “20 to 30% of Europe’s rare earth magnet needs by 2030 could be sourced domestically in the EU from literally zero.”

India Rare Earths Mission

  • Industries in India have encouraged the government to establish a mission, staffed by experts, similar to the India Semiconductor Mission, and make ocean exploration a key part of the strategy for the Deep Ocean Mission.
  • In addition to diversifying sources of supply for these strategic raw materials, it would aim to promote private sector mining in the industry.
  • In reference to China’s “Made in China 2025” effort, which focuses on novel materials and employs rare earth minerals to create permanent magnets, the business group has proposed adding rare earth minerals in the “Make in India” campaign.
Why such move?
  • Though India has 6% of the world’s rare earth reserves, it only produces 1% of global output, and meets most of its requirements of such minerals from China.
  • In 2018-19, for instance, 92% of rare earth metal imports by value and 97% by quantity were sourced from China.

-Source: The Hindu


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