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Demand for Rare Earths
In the last 20 years the importance of rare earth elements has skyrocketed due to three main factors:
- High demand: An increasing global demand for new products and emerging technologies that use rare earth elements (REE).
- Uncertain supply: China, the world's largest source of rare earth materials at the present time, has begun to reduce quotas on its REE exports, combat smuggling and also close some of its major mines. Currently, China provides over 90 percent of the world's total output of rare earths.
- No substitutions: The unique electronic, optical and magnetic characteristics of these elements cannot be matched by any other metals or synthetic substitutes.
Combined, these three factors have raised a growing level of concern that other rare earth mining sites need to be found outside of China, explored and brought online in short order.
The U.S. Department of Energy is anticipating a critical shortage of 5 rare earth elements necessary for green technology development and construction. These REE are neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium.
Already it's believed that the United States and several other countries are beginning to stockpile their reserves of REE in anticipation of these anticipated shortages.
Sources: US Department of Energy, Technology Metal Research
Why Are Rare Earths Considered More Valuable?
There are 17 classified rare earth elements and prices vary widely with heavy rare earths historically commanding significantly higher prices than light rare earths. Several of these elements can fetch extremely high prices depending on their scarcity and commercial applications. Europium, terbium and dysprosium have been recently priced in the range of $500 - $900/kg. While prices have dropped 70-95% from 2011 peaks, prices are still up over 130% from 2010 prices and heavies have maintained their value relative to lights. Lanthanum and cerium are nearing historic price levels.
Less expensive rare earths like lanthanum and cerium (the prices of which are nearing historic price levels) are extensively used in modern technology, such as the manufacturing of catalytic converters that automobiles require.
Many of the high tech devices enjoyed by the western world need rare earths to work. Consumer smartphones, TVs, batteries, computers, medical equipment, even some of the critical components in nuclear reactors depend on rare earth elements for their operation.
This widespread need for REE in global manufacturing ensures a constant commercial hunger for these metals for the foreseeable future.
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