Rare earths, essential metals for tomorrow’s economy

Dysprosium, neodymium, cerium… The rare earths, a large deposit of which has just been discovered in Sweden, are strategic metals because they are important for tomorrow’s economy, especially for the key technologies of the energy transition.

– Where do these metals come from?

Rare earths consist of 17 raw materials that were discovered in Sweden at the end of the 18th century, each with different properties.

These elements are often grouped under the same name because they are in the same soil.

After the ore is extracted from the ground, it must undergo a “separation” treatment, which is the separation of the various minerals through chemical operations, sometimes involving acids.

– Are they really rare?

They are actually quite numerous on the planet.

Before Thursday’s Swedish discovery (estimated at one million tons of rare earth oxides), the US Geological Survey estimated world reserves at 120 million tons, more than a third of which, 44 million tons in China, 22 million in Vietnam, 21 million tons. million in Brazil, 12 million in Russia and 7 million in India.

“As the demand for these raw materials increases, people are looking for them and finding more of them. The problem is more in the relationship between the cost of production and the market price,” John Seaman, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri), analyzes.

However, demand should continue to grow. The KU Leuven University will need rare earth metals by this date to replace hydrocarbons and achieve carbon neutrality in 2050, Eurométaux, the European association of rare metals producers, has calculated.

– What is so special about them?

Each of these minerals has an industrial use, between europium useful for television screens, cerium for polishing glass or lanthanum for catalysts in gasoline engines.

It can be found in a drone, a wind turbine, a hard drive, an electric car motor, a telescope lens or a fighter jet.

“Some of these items are more or less irreplaceable or at a premium,” John Seaman told AFP.

Indispensable because their properties are sometimes unique, they are preferred for making permanent magnets for offshore wind turbines, for example, due to their qualities of neodymium and dysprosium. Once installed, the magnets require little maintenance and provide strong performance that facilitates the operation of these offshore installations.

– China is the leader, the West lags behind?

Jane Nakano, a researcher at the Center for International Strategy in Washington, points out that China has a wealth of opportunities, but that its dominance is due to “the culmination of long-term industrial policy” and “benefits from the delay in extractive industry regulation.” studies (CSIS).

Over the years, and with massive public investment, Beijing has been able to maintain an extensive ore processing network, leading many of the planet’s producers today to export their ores there.

Ms Nakano says China has also filed more patents for rare earths than the rest of the world. However, this dominance came at a heavy environmental price.

– Move, why?

Tensions abound between China and the West amid trade and geopolitical differences. Brussels and Washington feel an urgency to diversify their supplies of this vital raw material.

Fears of a blockage are also based on painful precedent: Tokyo saw rare earth finds cut off by China in 2010 due to a territorial dispute.

Japan has since diversified its supplies, signed contracts with Australia’s Lynas in Malaysia and developed its recycling sector.

Another warning occurred during the trade war with Beijing in the United States. In May 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping later visited the rare earth factory, a gesture interpreted as a veiled threat of an embargo.

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