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We need rare earth elements for a greener future, but there's a catch

The date of: 2022-08-30
viewed: 1


In the push to transition from fossil fuels to greener energy, a key piece of the puzzle is accessing materials to help accelerate the technological shift — namely, rare earth elements.

The group of 17 metallic elements has the potential to be a key economic driver for countries mining and processing them. They are crucial for building components for everything from wind turbines and electric-vehicle batteries to cell phones and other products.

But they also come with lingering questions over the short- and long-term environmental impacts associated with the mining process.

Canada currently has only one operational mine, in the Northwest Territories, but with large known reserves there is big potential for more.

So how do we balance the need for mining the minerals with those environmental risks associated with the operations? And where does climate change fit in?

So what are rare earth elements?

The term rare earth elements is used to describe 17 metallic elements, including the 15 lanthanide chemical elements, as well as scandium and yttrium.

These elements, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits, are extremely valuable for a number of industrial uses such as clean energy, aerospace and automotive, but the catch is that they come in low concentrations. The largest global use for the elements is to produce permanent magnets in modern electronics. 

Where does Canada fit in?

China dominates the rare earth market with annual production estimated at 127,000 tonnes in 2020, accounting for almost 60 per cent of global production. The United States (34,000 tonnes), Myanmar (27,000 tonnes) and Australia (15,000 tonnes) are also major world players.

And Canada?

'Canada has some of the largest known reserves and resources of rare earths in the world,' says Rebecca Gotto, manager of government relations at the Saskatchewan Research Council.

The research council is involved in the development of the first rare earth processing facility of its kind in North America, in Saskatoon.

As of last year, it's estimated that Canada has more than 14 million tonnes of rare earth oxides.

Much of the rare earth market is dominated by China. Miners are seen here at the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals, in Inner Mongolia in 2011. (Reuters)

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