Primary REE: Neodymium (Nd), Samarium (Sm)
Secondary REE: Dysprosium (Dy)
Magnets are the driving market for rare earth demand. Not only
is it the dominant consumer by volume (32%) and value (38%,
$500-550m.), but the applications of magnets are in critical
environmental and defence technologies.
Neodymium-iron-boron (Nd-Fe-B) has
the highest strength of all magnets (see, p.44) and
are used a wide variety of applications including: computer
hard disc drives, wind turbine motors, missiles, and guidance
systems commonly used by the USA.
The crux of the issue is that the
USA does not like the idea of being dependant on China for the
rare earth elements (REE) or magnets that make their missiles
and guidance systems function.
The discovery of Nd-Fe-B magnets
was a result of attempts to reduce dependency on copper in the
late 1970s to early 1980s. In a situation which may serve as a
warning for rare earths today, the price of copper rocketed in
the 1970s on the back of a civil war in the Democratic Republic
of Congo (then Zaire) a major supplier of copper.
With Fe the industry had a readily
available magnetic mineral, and an alloy together with Nd and B
was created that actually resulted in a higher strength magnet
Each magnet contains: 30-33% Nd*,
66-69% Fe, and 1% B (*note that small amounts of dysprosium,
Dy, can be used with Nd at a ratio of 9:1).
In terms of volume, 1 kg of Nd
metal uses a feedstock of 1.16kg of neodymium oxide
In 2008, 51,000 tonnes of Nd-Fe-B
magnets was produced globally this is expected to increase to
60,000 tpa within five years.
The other rare earth magnet,
samarium-cobalt (Sm-Co), is not as widely used as its Nd
counterpart but is perhaps critical. Sm-Co can operate at
higher temperatures (>250¡C) than Nd-Fe-B without
losing its magnetic field. This is a very desirable trait for
technology used in the armed forces such as ballistic missiles
and stealth helicopters.
Sm-Co magnets, for example, are
used to create white noise to hide a stealth helicopters from
Erbium is central to fibre optic cables, but a host
of rare earth elements give functionality to many
digital and hi-tech products such as mobile phones,
plasma TVs and electric vehicles
Primary REE: Yttrium (Y), Europium (Eu)
incl. Lanthanum (La), Dysprosium (Dy), Gadolinium (Gd)
Phosphorescent proprieties of rare
earths Ð the ability to glow after exposure to energy Ð
lights up energy saving bulbs, gives mobile phones their
colour, and are central to plasma televisions and computer
Eu is a phosphor that gives the red
colour to a digital picture, La phosphors are used in x-rays to
reduce radiation exposure, while Gd is used in colour
In terms of volume to value ratio,
phosphors are by far the most valuable market for rare earths
representing only 7% of industry tonnages (9,000 tpa) but 32%
of its total value (400-450m.).
This is unsurprising when comparing
the average cost of 1kg of rare earth oxides (REO) into this
sector: $45/kg versus $3/kg for catalysts and $8/kg for metal
Primary REE: Lanthanum (La)
Cerium (Ce), Praseodymium (Pr), Neodymium (Nd)
Representing the third largest
market by volume with a 19% market share, but only 5% of the
industrys value, La is used as a fluid cracking catalyst
to refine oil.
It provides the means to separate a
number of petroleum products Ð such as gasoline, kerosene
and naphtha jet fuel and diesel from heavy crude oil.
The REO structurally and chemically
stabilises the zeolite filter through which the crude oil
passes, allowing it to operate at higher temperatures. The more
crude or lower quality the oil is, the increased volume of REO
At present the market volume is
20-25,000 tpa the bulk of the product shared between
consumption in China and the USA (~9,000 tpa each) and Japan
La is the primary REO used but
should availability become an issue, oil companies can use Ce,
Pr and Nd in similar quantities.
The market drivers behind this will
be the types of oil being extracted. As the world runs dry of
higher quality sweet crude oil, extraction from more
unconventional deposits such as tar sands in Alberta, Canada,
will see and increased use of REOs to covert the increasingly
crude oil into usable every day chemicals. REOs will be central
Ce is also used as key component in
catalytic converters on cars.
Primary REE: Many including Praseodymium (Pr),
Metal alloys is a category which
covers a wide variety of uses for metal products that contain a
combination rare earths rather than specific elements. The uses
range from nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries
for portable electronics, hybrid and electric cars.
Pr is consumed to the high strength
metals produced for aircraft, while Sc is used in aluminium
alloys in aerospace and leisure goods (ie. tennis rackets, golf
Over the last ten years significant
growth in the magnet industry has seen it separate out from
this category into one of its own. However even without the
substantial share of the industry that magnets bring, metal
alloys still account for 19% of its volume (22,000 tpa) and 13%
of the value ($175-183m.).
Another application with growing
interest is fuel cells. Like a rechargeable battery, rare
earths are used in a number of components of a fuel cell. For
example in a solid oxide design, the anode is made from
yttria-stabilised-zircon (YSZ), and the cathode from strontium
doped lanthanum magnetite. The electrode can use up 2kgs per
2kWH of YSZ as well as samarium doped ceria (IM May 2010,
p.81: End user focus: fuel cells).
Primary REE: Cerium (Ce)
Representing 12% (15,000 tpa) of
the volume market, rare earth polishing powders are used
predominately on high value glass such as flat glass, and glass
for CRT, LCD, TFT televisions.
The higher content of total rare
earth oxide (TREO) in the powder, the more specialist the end
use and the higher the value the polishing product. For
example, 88% TREO is used to polish products from flat glass to
television screens; TREO of 90% is used to hi-tech optical
lenses; and a TREO of 93% is used on precision lenses like
those used in medical equipment.
Polishing grades of REO sell for an
average of $4/kg but the polishing product can considerably
more: cerium oxide polishing powder from Inner Mongolia, China
for example is selling for $688/kg.
The sector holds a value of
Primary REE: Neodymium (Nd), Praseodymium (Pr), Erbium
(Er), Yttrium (Y)
The application of rare earths in
ceramic component is predominately such as crucibles and
pigments. The market accounts for 3% of the industrys
value and 6% of the volume and is a more recent development.
The market value of glass is $25m.(2%); in tonnes this equates
to 12,000 tpa with the lowest average REO selling prices a kilo
of the whole industry at $2.
Yttrium based ceramics are used for
holding molten metal and as a refractory nozzle for jet casting
As a ceramic pigment, the
introduction of REO to the ceramic melt gives the body the
unique colour: Nd (blue/lavender), Pr (green/yellow), Er (sharp
pink). The offer additives that are stable within ceramics (and
Lasers: Yttrium crystals are core to lasers for
communication systems, lanthanums phosphors are used in
lasers that detect radiation in the medical sector, while
neodymium lasers are used in heavy industry like welding and
also in MRI scanners.
Submarine communication systems can
utilise the lesser know promethium (Pm), and scandium and
andium are also suited to laser technology.
Fibre optics: This
has emerged in the last decade as a suitable communications
technology through which to send high quality, rapid data in
light pulses. In recent years, telephone communications and
television channels have begun to be received by this
technology which has more familiar uses in the medical
industry. Erbium doped optical fibres have allowed for major
progress in the communications industry.
Total value $1.2-1.4bn
Total tonnages: 124,000
Source: IMCOA, Roskill Information Services