Related Topic in KAS Prelims Syllabus:
Geography [Paper-I]: Marine and Continental Resources
- The United States Army is planning to fund the construction of a Rare Earths processing facility to secure the domestic supply of minerals that are used to make military weapons and electronics.
- This will be the first financial investment by the US military into commercial-scale Rare Earths production since the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb during World War II.
Why U.S. is planning to focus on Rare Earths?
- The decision comes after China threatened to stop exporting Rare Earth materials to the US amid the ongoing trade war between the countries.
- President Donald Trump earlier this year ordered the military to update its supply chain for the niche materials, warning that reliance on other nations for the strategic minerals could hamper U.S. defenses.
- While Rare Earth elements are used in building consumer electronics, in healthcare and transportation, they are especially important for governments because of their use in manufacturing defence equipment.
- Currently, China refines approximately 80%-90% of the world’s Rare Earths, thereby having substantial control over their supply.
What are Rare Earths?
- Rare Earth Elements or Rare Earth Metals are a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table — the 15 lanthanides, plus scandium and yttrium, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits as the lanthanides, and have similar chemical properties.
- The 17 Rare Earths are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y).
- Despite their classification, most of these elements are not really “rare”.
- One of the Rare Earths, promethium, is radioactive.
- According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance (RETA), the estimated size of the Rare Earth sector is between $10 billion and $15 billion.
- About 100,000- 110,000 tonnes of Rare Earth elements are produced annually around the world.
Are they really “Rare”?
- The term “rare earth” arises from the minerals from which they were first isolated, which were uncommon oxide-type minerals (earth) found in Gadolinite extracted from one mine in the village of Ytterby, Sweden.
- However, with the exception of the highly-unstable prometheum, rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth’s crust.
Uses of Rare Earths
- They are important in technologies of consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy, advanced transportation, healthcare, environmental mitigation, and national defence, among others.
- Scandium is used in televisions and fluorescent lamps, and yttrium is used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.
- They are used in space shuttle components, jet engine turbines, and drones. Cerium, the most abundant Rare Earth element, is essential to NASA’s Space Shuttle Programme.
Dominance of China
- In China, the mining of Rare Earths began in the 1950s, but it remained a cottage industry until the 1970s, when the chemist Xu Guangxian found a way to separate the Rare Earth elements.
- China’s Rare Earths deposits account for 80% of identified global reserves.
Rare Earths in India
- In India, monazite is the principal source of rare earths.
- The resource estimates of monazite in the beach and inland placer deposits have been enhanced from 10.70 million tonnes in 2009 to 11.935 million tonnes in 2016.
- Indian Rare Earths (IREL), a Government of India Undertaking, and Kerala Minerals and Metals (KMML), a Kerala State Government Undertaking, are actively engaged in mining and processing of beach sand minerals from placer deposits.
- IREL has a plant at Udyogamandal, Aluva, located in Ernakulam district, Kerala, wherein the monazite is chemically treated to separate rare earths in its composite chloride form and thorium as hydroxide upgrade.