Imagine trying to get through the day without your cellphone, laptop, iPad, flat-panel TV, battery-powered gadgets, or your car. We often take these things for granted because they’ve become intrinsically integrated into our daily lives. That also means we can’t live without rare earth metals, because many of our high-tech products cannot function without them.
Remember the periodic table in chemistry class? The rare earth metals are the elements at the bottom of that table – 15 lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium.
Unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties make rare earth metals, or rare earth elements (REEs), irreplaceable in many high-tech applications. They imbue products with greater efficiency, higher performance, miniaturization, speed, durability, and stability at high temperatures.
- Yttrium is used in compact fluorescent lamps (CFL), light-emitting diode (LED) lights, flat-panel monitors, laser technology, superconductors, and microwaves.
- Dysprosium and neodymium are needed for laser technology and supermagnets, which have applications in hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, hard disk drives, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Europium is used in CFL and LED lights, flat-panel displays, laser technology, and medical applications.
- Terbium is found in fuel cells, CFL and LED lights, electronic devices, and sonar.
- Cerium and lanthanum (lantanium) are used in catalytic converters.
A cellphone, which is composed of approximately 60 different elements, contains about 1/10 of an ounce of REEs. Some hybrid vehicles use as much as 30 pounds, and a large wind turbine about 1,300 pounds.
Most rare earth metals are not rare. Sometimes, they’re even more abundant than precious metals such as gold. REEs were dubbed “rare” because they are expensive and difficult to mine – usually found in small quantities, mixed in with other ores.
As more people on the planet enter the middle class, especially in China, India, and Africa, the clamor for high-tech products, hybrid and electric cars, and green energy grows.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has designated five rare earth metals (dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium, and yttrium) as “critical” materials because they are expected to be scarce until 2015. Global demand for dysprosium, which truly is geologically rare, may triple by 2025. Cerium, indium, lanthanum, and tellurium are designated as “near critical.”