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Rare Earths Supply at Risk Due to Growing Shift to Green Energy

Rare Earth Elements

Any global effort to save and prolong the life of Mother Earth, such as investing into and inventing technologies that use clean fuel and green energy are most welcome. But with the world still yet to determine a suitable, dependable and reliable source of rare earths outside of China, these efforts could prove detrimental to the rare earths supply chain.

Production of two rare earths metals, dysprosium and neodymium, critical components used to aid technologies in manufacturing wind turbines to generate electricity and make electric vehicles, have been found to have increased by only a few percentage points per year, according to Versus projected global demand seen to grow by 700 per cent for neodymium and 2,600 per cent for dysprosium over the next 25 years, it is believed the supply of the precious metal could not keep up given that the two metals are most especially available almost exclusively in China.

Citing a publication in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology authored by Dr Randolph E. Kirchain, inventions of green technologies would definitely carry out a proposed stabilisation in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, at 450 parts per million.

However, to meet the objectives of these green technologies would mean a parallel growth in the supply of rare earths.

“To meet that need, production of dysprosium would have to grow each year at nearly twice the historic growth rate for rare earth supplies,” Mr Kirchain said.

“Although the rare earths supply base has demonstrated an impressive ability to expand over recent history, even the rare earths industry may struggle to keep up with that pace of demand growth,” the author said.

In order to keep up, shortfalls in future supply could be mitigated “through materials substitution, improved efficiency, and the increased reuse, recycling, and use of scrap.”

Rare earth metals are essential for clean energy technologies, such as PVs; hybrid and electric vehicles; high-efficiency wind turbines; smart grid technologies; compact fluorescent lights; fiber optics; lasers and hard disk drives, defense guidance and control systems; global positioning systems; and advanced industrial, military and outdoor recreation water treatment technology.

Rare earth metals are not really rare. It is the mining procedure and operations that make them rare. Unfortunately, majority of the world’s rare earth metals, about 97 per cent, are mined in China, which have considerably slashed export quotas in 2010 and 2011 for domestic consumption and manufacturing purposes.

These “economically important metals are at risk of supply disruption due to human factors such as geopolitics, resource nationalism, along with events such as strikes and accidents,” said, citing a report by the British Geological Survey.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in its 2011 Critical Materials Strategy, said “many clean energy technologies depend on raw materials with potential supply risks” as it assessed the 16 elements considered most critical.

Dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium were included in the short-term critical supply list. On the medium term were lithium and tellurium.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.

By: Esther Tanquintic-Misa

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