Rare Earths: Valuable and in Short Supply

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Inside your cell phone, laptop, and iPod is a small bit of what chemists call “rare earth metals.” They are not particularly rare, but the places where they occur have many people worried about a continual supply to keep our electronics running.

Rare earths are the lanthanide elements plus scandium and yttrium—17 elements found at the bottom of the Periodic Table. They were first discovered in the late 18th century as oxidized minerals, but it took several years before they could be separated from the minerals. Rare earths are silvery, shiny metals that tarnish quickly in the air and have good electrical conductivity. They are not particularly rare, but they don’t occur in heavy concentrations. Instead, they are scattered over a wide area.

Rare earth oxides (clockwise from top center): praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.
Credit: Peggy Greb, U.S. Department of Agriculture

So, why are people worried about the supply of rare earth metals? China currently mines 97% of the world’s supply, but in Sept. 2011, China halted production of the rare earth minerals for one month. As a result, the United States would like to find a more stable source for these valuable metals.

That stable source may have been found in California and Nebraska. A company called Molycorp has reopened a mine in California, near the Nevada border, that has a supply of rare earths. The company plans to mine and process rare earth metals by 2014. Another company, Quantum Rare Earths Development Corp. in Canada, discovered what may be the largest deposit of rare earths on the planet near a small town in Nebraska.

Next time you use your cell phone and laptop, remember that the rare earths in the periodic table of your chemistry textbook are actually inside your cell phone and laptop and that keeping a stable supply of them will ensure that we can buy and use electronics for years to come.

—Roberta Baxter


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