Rare Earths: Not Rare, Not Earths
Rare earths are not actually rare, and they are not even earths. However, despite this misnomer, many people still misunderstand the industry. These elements are essential in modern renewable energy systems and are used in products such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, MRI machines, and camera lenses. There are 17 rare earths, including the 15 lanthanides and scandium and yttrium. Despite their importance, the industry is relatively small, with China dominating production. The difficulty lies in processing these elements rather than finding them, making it challenging for other countries to catch up.
China’s control of the rare earths industry poses challenges for other countries, and technological advancements in separation processes are critical. Separating rare earths is a complex and costly endeavor, and the current technology for extraction and separation is not efficient.
The global market for rare earths is under $10 billion a year, and investing in new separation technologies could be more beneficial than subsidizing new mines. Research into different separation technologies should be prioritized to solve the basic rare earths problem and drive innovative solutions. Public money should be directed into developing alternative separation methods, as this is where the real problem lies.