World industries dependent on rare earth elements, so named
because of their scarcity and high value, will be facing an
uncertain future as supply could be disrupted by
technical, environmental and financial factors.
Global demand for REE has increased by more than 50
per cent in the last decade, and is forecast to keep rising.
Still, "geological scarcity in absolute terms is unlikely to be a
concern," according to a briefing note published by the
Geological Society of London.
As of July, the main problem with REE supply is that there are
not enough REE available to countries other than China, the study
Although known REE deposits outside China have been found and
potentially economic to mine, they cannot simply be turned on,
the study noted, stressing it will take a decade or longer to go
through all the technical, financial, environmental and
regulatory stages needed to establish a new mine.
"(It is) the technical, financial and environmental challenges
of establishing new mines (that) 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," said Professor Paul Henderson,
Honorary Professor of Mineralogy at University College London,
and chairman of the drafting group.
Extracting REE is a very tricky and financially exhaustive
business undertaking. The challenge to miners to ensure
profitability lies in extracting the precious elements at the
very least cost. Moreover, prospecting these metals is very
expensive and arduous.
The natural occurrence of REE is strongly dependent on
geological circumstances. Over the years, there have been only a
few locations found to have sufficient quantity and
concentration, and in a suitable form and setting, to make their
extraction and exploitation economically viable.
Henderson also noted are environmental considerations. REE
production uses a great deal of energy and most REE mines are on
the surface. Henderson said geoscientists must not only
identify potential sources of REE and how to extract useful ores,
but likewise ensure that little damage as possible is done to the
environment during extraction.
"Policy-makers and investors need to be informed by the best
available science (in order to be guided to come up with the most
appropriate) decisions," Henderson said.
"Sustained funding of research is needed for the entire life
cycle of the REE, from exploration and mining to manufacture,
recycling, re-use and disposal," he added.
Most of the main reserves of REE are found in Bayan Obo
in Inner Mongolia, China; former Soviet states
Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan; Mountain Pass, Calif., and in
Mount Weld, Australia, the study said. There have been also
resources found in India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia,
South Africa, Namibia, Mauritania, Burundi, Malawi, Greenland,
Canada and Brazil
Of these, Bayan Obo contained the greatest quantity of REE
known. However, the Maoniuping deposit in Sichuan province,
China, is dubbed at present as the world's biggest REE producer,
The Weishan deposit in Shandong province is also mined for
Before Bayan Obo, the largest single source of REE was a
carbonatite sheet at Mountain Pass. Although mining at
Mountain Pass ceased in 2002 due to environmental concerns, it
has recently reopened and is expected to return to full
production in 2012. Mountain Pass, along with Mount Weld in
Western Australia, is expected to make a significant contribution
to global supply of weathered carbonatite.
Other significant contributions include the alkali trachyte
intrusion at Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia, where REE will be
co-produced with zirconium and other metals, and a further
smaller monazite deposit at Steenkampskraal, Western Cape, South
Significant mineral sand deposits include those in western
India and in Western Australia. Most of these deposits contain
monazite-(Ce) and some also contain xenotime-(
REE are also produced as byproducts from the minerals apatite
or phosphate ore and loparite or niobium ore mined at Khibiny and
Lovozero on the Kola Peninsula, Russia.
A 2002 report by the United States Geological Survey listed
822 occurrences of REE in a wide variety of rock types, about 20
per cent of which are carbonatites. As of June 2011, there is
also active exploration in alkaline igneous rocks, mineral sands,
and hydrothermal deposits, the study said.
Challenges Faced in Mining Rare Earths Trickier