The Growing Challenge of Procuring Rare Earth Elements

Sun, Jul 26, 2009

Materials, Supply Chain

The Growing Challenge of Procuring Rare Earth Elements

Within just the last few weeks, there have been a number of announcements in the media that indicate the importance of securing the rare earth element [REE] supply chain across a number of industries.  For example:

At the 2009 Magnetics Conference, held in Chicago, Ian London from Avalon Rare Metals gave an excellent talk titled “How Are We Going To Meet Our Growing Need For Rare Earth Supply?“, which touched on a number of key areas that are of particular relevance to the recent flurry of activity described above.

In this keynote presentation, Ian reviewed the origins, sources and applications of REEs, as well as the history of their usage for high performance permanent magnets.  With the ever-growing demand for such magnets, and other applications of REEs, Ian detailed the ongoing challenges of creating an appropriate supply chain to meet this demand.

Applications that are driving demand for rare earth permanent magnets [REPMs] include electric motors, wind turbines, air conditioners and MRI machines.  Other growing applications of REEs include batteries, photovoltaic cells, glass, catalysts and electronics.

As Ian pointed out, REPMs can be used to reduce the size of electric motors and improve their efficiency considerably.  This has obvious applications in “under-the-hood” technologies for hybrid and electric vehicles, but there is also a lot interest in using these more-efficient permanent magnet motors for air conditioning units.  Switching to such motors could lead to a reduction in power consumption of up to 50%, with the same overall performance.

Interestingly, REEs are widely dispersed across the globe, but are rarely found in concentrated form. They are only found together, and the extraction and separation processes for REEs are particularly complicated.

Ian pointed out in his presentation that, while China currently dominates the rare earth market today, growing constraints on the export of Chinese REEs is creating an opportunity for projects outside of China.  This additional impetus has led to a number of non-Chinese rare earth projects being evaluated [as subsequently illustrated in the media stories detailed at the beginning of this post].

Ian concluded his presentation with a discussion on the future of REE procurement, and emerging sources for the REE raw materials.  He concluded that out to at least 2014, projected demand for the REEs will be met.  Ian’s presentation is available for download at the Avalon Web site.

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- who has written 67 posts on Terra Magnetica.

Gareth is a Founding Principal at Technology Metals Research, LLC. He has expertise in a variety of magnetic materials, devices and applications, and their associated trends and challenges, particularly for renewable energy production. For more information check out his biography page. Don't forget to check out Terra Magnetica at Twitter too.

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