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Good News! Rare Earth Elements Are Not Rare

The date of: 2022-04-19
viewed: 3

Powerful permanent magnets made from Rare Earth Elements (REEs) give us cheaper, lighter and more efficient generators and motors for wind turbines and electric cars.
Australia is the world’s 4th largest producer with 8% of REE production.  But China is the rare earth element elephant, with 60% of the world’s supply.  Their share of production used to be up around 95%, but after trying to hike the price in 2009 other countries — including Australia — started mining for REE. 
Because China’s attempt to raise prices failed, you might think people would feel relaxed about how secure the supply is, but this isn’t the case1. Spurred by rising prices, governments and companies are continuing to work on diversifying REE production.  To this end, last month Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australian taxpayers will contribute $30 million to Arafura Resources to build a rare earth elements separation facility near Aileron in the Northern territory.  This is an early step in a plan to develop REE mining and refining capability of around 200,000 tonnes per year at a cost of around $1.4 billion.
If you’re one of the rare but down to earth types who want to learn more about rare earth elements, keep reading and I’ll cover…
What rare earth elements are.
Why they’re important for the transition to renewable energy.
How much money the Coalition promised to give mining companies last month.
Rare and Earths and Elements? 2 Out Of 3 Ain’t Bad
Voltaire, famously mocked the Holy Roman Empire for being neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire3.  But he could never make a similar jibe about rare earth elements because, while they aren’t rare, they can technically be called earths, they are definitely elements, and two out of three ain’t bad.  
Because they’re not rare, there’s no conceivable scenario where we build enough permanent magnets to run out of REEs
But the hard part is finding concentrations high enough to be worth mining.  While South Australia has far more rare earth elements deposits than the rest of the country combined, so far no one has found any they consider worth mining, as the coloured triangles Geosciences Australia jammed into these circles show:
For the most part, REEs are socially awkward elements that don’t like forming concentrated deposits.  So far, the only really rich one is in southern Jiangxi in China.  Every other country that wants to mine rare earth elements has to make do with the least worst deposits available.  
This means China is likely to always be the lowest-cost producer.  This is why they were producing around 95% of world supply in 2009 before deciding to crank up the price.  So, while Australia has plenty of okay deposits, like everywhere else in the world that isn’t southern Jiangxi, they’re not great. 
Rare earth elements are metals.  Normally, we don’t think of metals as earths or dirt, but chemists aren’t normal people.  (They’re extraordinary people.)  If you pick up a random handful of dry dirt then, depending on where you are, it can be over 10% metals such as calcium4, aluminium, magnesium, iron, sodium, and so on.  So, according to chemists, metal compounds can be earths.
To prove rare earth elements are elements, I will show you the Periodic Table of Elements.  But not the one you’re used to.  I’m going to show you the real Periodic Table.  The secret one your school teachers kept hidden from you.
In this easier to read Periodic Table6 I’ve outlined all 15 REEs in red.  I’ve also outlined two elements in pink often included with rare earths because they’re chemically similar.  Some people throw in even more elements, but that behaviour shouldn’t be encouraged. 
But their boring chemical similarity means all REEs will be found together in one deposit, although portions can vary.  This means one mine could technically produce all the rare earth elements.  In practice, only the ones considered economically worthwhile are refined.
REEs are metals, but they tend to be soft and brittle in their pure states, so you don’t have to worry about someone trying to stab you with a neodymium sword.  Unless, of course, you have surgical steel inside your body.  In this case, a powerful permanent magnet sword could be very dangerous.
REEs Make Better Magnets
REEs have a wide range of uses and, if you’re interested, they’re listed here.  But permanent magnets are the most important application for getting off fossil fuels.  The rare earth elements most often used for making magnets are:
Neodymium — This is the main rare earth element used to make permanent magnets.
Dysprosium — Far less of this is required but can replace around 5% of neodymium and improve durability.
Praseodymium — While not required, this element can replace a small amount of the neodymium in magnets.
Dysprosium — This can help improve a magnet’s ability to handle higher temperatures without losing strength and improve durability.
Terbium — This is sometimes added to permanent magnets and has an effect similar to dysprosium.
Samarian — Combined with cobalt, this makes for a powerful permanent magnet.  But because they’re not as powerful as neodymium magnets, samarian-cobalt magnets now play second fiddle. 
Neodymium magnets are incredibly strong, and many injuries — and even deaths — have been caused by people being caught between two of them.  If you are a mystery writer, they are a really underutilized murder weapon7.
Wind Turbines & EVs Use Permanent Magnets
Magnets are required for both generators and electric motors.  (They’re kind of the same thing, but I’m not going into that.)  Two types of magnets can be used:
Electromagnets:  These have more weight, require more copper, and are more complex — but are cheaper upfront.
Permanent magnets:  These are lighter, simpler, and allow slightly higher efficiency.  They also cost more.  
When saving on weight is important, permanent magnets are usually used.  
Wind Turbines
On land, most wind turbines use electromagnets, but an increasing number are direct drive wind turbines with permanent magnets.  This allows the generator to be lighter, which is very important because it sits on top of a long steel tube with giant blades attached to it.  The lower the weight, the less material is required for foundations and the steel tower, reducing costs.  They also have a small efficiency advantage, particularly at low wind speeds.
Because permanent magnets are simpler than electromagnets, they require less maintenance.  This is why every new offshore wind turbine uses permanent magnets.  It’s difficult to maintain wind turbines 30 km out to sea, so there’s plenty of incentive to minimize the amount required. 
While wind turbines don’t need permanent magnets and could get by without them, they are useful and help minimize costs and maximize efficiency. 
Electric Vehicles
A lighter motor makes an EV slightly more energy efficient because it doesn’t have to haul as much weight.  Also, because they’re lighter and energy doesn’t have to be spent charging electromagnets, the motor can be a few percent more efficient. 
Accept Some Substitutes
Improving EV efficiency by using permanent magnets is useful, but this will become less important as batteries become cheaper.  An EV manufacturer could use a less efficient but cheaper motor without permanent magnets and make up for the range loss by adding additional low-cost batteries.  Whether or not this substitution makes sense will depend on the relative cost of permanent magnets and the extra battery capacity.  Because of the potential for disruption in supply and recent increases in REE prices, both EV and wind turbine producers are looking for ways to minimize REE use, and some suggest they may move away from using them. 
I think REE permanent magnets offer too much of an advantage not to be used.  This could change if prices rise, but I doubt China will try to force them up again.  Their market share has plummeted enough, and they make too much money from selling lower-cost rare earth elements to risk killing the goose that lays the neodymium eggs.
The Chinese REE Trade Dispute
Thirteen years ago, China restricted exports of REEs to raise the price.  They claimed they were doing this for environmental reasons but didn’t really fool anyone.  At the time, China produced around 95% of the world’s supply, so they probably thought it would work.  Instead, it caused a trade dispute that didn’t benefit anyone, and other countries started producing rare earth elements.  This is how Australia became a producer.  China’s share of production has now fallen to around 60%. 
Around four years after the attempt to raise prices, the disruption was over.  One major reason it didn’t work was illegal Chinese mining and the smuggling of REEs.  The fact the price rise didn’t last long was a clear demonstration it can be challenging for a country to disrupt the supply of critical minerals beyond the short term, even if they control nearly all the world’s supply.  But now, increased demand for wind energy and electric vehicles have pushed REE prices up, many other countries are increasing production outside of China.  

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