What are rare earth metals and how are they used?

Preface.  After oil, the main feature of new products will be drastic simplification. The re-use of existing stuff. Lack of precision machine tools as they rust away. Back to basics: wood, iron, and clay.

Yet every high-tech object depends on critical, rare earth, platinum group, and precious metals that are often controlled by just China or one or two other nations.  At least there are dozens of countries to import oil from. But China is building mines all over the world and that makes supply chains quite vulnerable, especially as China uses its own metals to make products and not export these elements.  They’re gaining such control that it’s like Saudi Arabia buying up all the other oil fields in the world. And they not only control the mined minerals, they control the entire supply chain all the way up to finished products.

Mining is one of the most nasty, polluting, activity on earth. It uses 10% of fossil energy, so it can’t survive oil decline.  And because the remaining ores are so dispersed and have low concentrations of metals, it takes more and more energy to get them at a time when energy is declining.

Clearly rebuildable devices like wind and solar, which depend on hundreds of other devices like computers, electronics, satellites, and so which all are built with rare earth elements is not sustainable, clean, or green. A pyrrhic victory for China, turning their landscapes into Mordor for flash-in-the-pan temporary electronic goods while the oil age lasts.

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy”, April 2021, Springer, “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Light rare earths:  (La) Lanthanum (Ce) Cerium (Pr) Praseodymium (Nd) Neodymium (Sm) Samarium

Heavy rare earths: (Eu) Europium (Gd) Gadolinium (Tb) Terbium (Dy) Dysprosium (Ho) Holmium (Er) Erbium (Tm) Thulium (Yb) Ytterbium (Lu) Lutetium (Y) Yttrium

Their properties:

  • Silvery-white/gray in color
  • High luster but tarnish readily in air
  • Most REE compounds are strongly paramagnetic
  • Catalytic, chemical, electrical, metallurgical, nuclear, magnetic and optical properties
  • High electrical conductivity
  • Many REE fluoresce strongly under UV light
  • High melting and boiling points
  • Reacts with dilute acid to release H2 rapidly at room temperature
  • Reacts with H2O to liberate H2 slowly when cold and quickly upon heating

Rare Earth & Platinum-group metals are used in many products:

  1. Magnets (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Terbium, Dysprosium, Samarium): Motors, disc drives, MRI, power generation, microphones and speakers, magnetic refrigeration
  2. Metallurgical alloys (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Yttrium): NimH batteries, fuel cells, steel, lighter flints, super alloys, aluminum/magnesium
  3. Phosphors (Europium, Yttrium, Terbium, Neodymium, Erbium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Praseodymium): display phosphors CRT, LPD, LCD; fluorescent lighting, medical imaging, lasers, fiber optics
  4. Glass and Polishing (Cerium, Lanthanum, Praseodymium, Neodymium, Gadolinium, Erbium, Holmium, Baryte): polishing compounds, decolorizers, UV resistant glass, X-ray imaging
  5. Catalysts (Lanthanum, Cerium, Praseodymium, Neodymium, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, platinum): petroleum refining, catalytic converter, diesel additives, chemical processing, industrial pollution scrubbing

Applications with Rare Earth elements or Critical elements:

  • Aerospace: Beryllium
  • Aluminum production (fluorspar), alloys (Magnesium, Scandium)
  • Automobiles (Cerium, dysprosium, Europium, lanthanum, neodymium, Praseodymium, terbium, Yttrium)
  • Catalytic converters (Cerium)
  • Cathode-ray tubes (Gadolinium, Terbium, Yttrium)
  • Ceramics (Fluorspar)
  • Computer chips (Indium)
  • Defense (Neodymium, Praseodymium, Dysprosium, Terbium, Europium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Lutetium, Scandium, Samarium)
  • Drilling oil and gas (Baryte)
  • Electric bicycles: 0.1 kg neodymium, praseodymium per bicycle
  • Electric vehicles 1.7 kg of Neodymium & Praseodymium (Nd) per car (Bohlsen 2017), Neodymium (Niobium) electric motors (Samarium)
  • Electronics and electricity (Tungsten)
  • Fertilizers
  • Fire retardants (Antimony)
  • Fiber optics (Germanium, Erbium Europium, Terbium, Yttrium)
  • Flourescent light bulbs (europium, terbium, yttrium)
  • Fuel cells (SOFC use lanthaneum, cerium, prasedymium)
  • Healthcare (Baryte, Erbium)
  • Hybrid engines (Dysprosium)
  • Integrated circuits (silicon metal)
  • iPods (dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium, terbium)
  • Lasers (Europium, Holmium, Ytterbium)
  • LCD screens (Indium)
  • Lenses (Lanthanum)
  • Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) (Gallium)
  • Lighting (Lanthanum, Samarium, Europium, Scandium)
  • Luminescent compounds (Promethium)
  • Magnets for turbine systems, car parts, scientific instruments, smart phones, electric vehicles, stereo loudspeakers TVs (mainly neodymium, praseodymium)
  • Metallurgy and alloys (Baryte, Cerium)
  • Nuclear power (Europium, Gadolinium, Cerium, Yttrium, Samarium, Erbium, Beryllium, Niodymium)
  • Oil refinery (Cerium)
  • Optics (fluorspar)
  • Phones, computers, hybrid vehicles, magnets (Cobalt)
  • Photovoltaic cells (Germanium, silicon metal)
  • Pigments
  • Satellites (Niobium)
  • Semi-conductors (gallium, Holmium)
  • Solar panels: copper, indium, gallium, selenide (CIGS) solar cells
  • Steel production (coking coal, fluorspar, vanadium, Ytterbium)
  • Superconductors (high-temperature) Bismuth, Thulium, Yttrium
  • Superconductive compounds (Lanthanum)
  • Telecommunications and electronics (Beryllium)
  • Thermoelectric auto generators (Bismuth)
  • Water Treatment
  • Wind turbines up to 150 kg neodymium, praseodymium per MW (Bohlsen), (dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, terbium)

Cerium                 Catalytic converters, oil refining, glass-lens production, glass polishing, flints for lighters, water treatment, self-cleaning ovens

Dysprosium        Lasers, nuclear-reactor control rods, high-power magnets

Erbium                  Fiber optics, nuclear reactor control rods

Europium            TV & computer displays, lasers, optical electronics

Gadolinium         Cancer therapy, MRI contrast agent

Holmium              High-power magnets, lasers

Lanthanum         Oil refining cracking catalyst, fuel cells, hybrid-car batteries, camera lenses, carbon arc lamps for T and film industries, camera lenses

Lutetium              Chemical processing LED lightbulbs

Neodymium       Computer hard drives, cell phones, high-power permanent magnets for electric motors, wind turbines, capacitors, lasers, ear bud headphones, microphones

Praseodymium Permanent magnets, coloring pigment in photographic filters, Aircraft engines, carbon arc lights, glass in airport signal lenses, goggles for welders & glassmakers, fluoride glass in fiber optic cables to amplify signals

Samarium            High-power magnets, ethanol, PCB cleansers

Scandium            Aerospace components, aluminum alloys, mercury vapor lamps to make them brighter, aluminum baseball bats, lacrosse sticks, bicycle frames, fuel cells

Terbium               Solid-state electronics, sonar systems

Thulium                X-ray machines, superconductors

Ytterbium            Portable x-ray machines, lasers

Yttrium                 Lasers, TV and computer displays, microwave filters, strengthen glass, magnesium, ceramic, and aluminum alloys

How are they used (2010)

27%        Magnets

18%        Catalysts

16%        Metal alloys

12%        Polishing powder

  8%        Other

  6%        Glass

  5%        Ceramics

  5%        Phosphors

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