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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The High Cost of Rare Earths: Why They Are So Important and So Difficult to Get

The 17 silvery-white rare earth minerals are not uncommon in the earth’s crust, but economically viable deposits are more difficult to find. Moreover, the real rarity comes in the complex process of separating them into the materials needed to produce permanent magnets used in a range of critical products, from electric vehicle traction motors to wind turbines and servo motors in robotic arms.

It is a process that can take days to complete and leaves behind much waste. However, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Fuzhou think they have found a way to speed things up and cut industry pollution. They have identified a new chemical that can more effectively bind to specific rare earth elements and pull them out of the mix.

The scientists’ approach may not be able to isolate every rare earth element from the ore. However, it could prioritize those most commonly used in permanent magnets, such as neodymium and praseodymium. This could simplify the mining and refining process, lowering costs by eliminating steps that do not require rare earths. The researchers also plan to recycle a fraction of the rare earths discarded as waste.

China is the dominant producer of rare earth, and it has parlayed that dominance into dominance further down the value chain, including manufacturing permanent magnets. The rare earths are crucial to the green energy revolution and have many other applications in batteries, catalysts, and other technologies.

However, China’s production has shifted away from traditional mines, and it is now exporting rare earth at prices well above the cost of production. That has led some Western companies, including MP Materials (MP.N), to seek supplies of processed rare earths elsewhere.

One such company is Australia’s Arafura Resources (ARU.AU), which has a rare earth project in an isolated region of the country’s Northern Territory. The company aims to be among the world’s top producers once its mine begins operations.

Another potential source of rare earths is the Department of Defense, which has an EMBER research program inspired by microbes that use rare earth elements in their natural environment. Chrisey’s team uses microbial bioengineering techniques to create strains of microbes that can extract and purify rare earths like the ones produced at the Mountain Pass mine.

The complex process of transforming rare earth from mine to magnet is a crucial reason why the European Union has set its sights on developing its supply and, in doing so, creating strategic autonomy for Europe. Listen to this week’s episode of Quartz Obsession on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to learn more about the EU’s efforts and to hear from an expert at the European Commission.

A grant from the National Science Foundation supports this episode of Quartz Obsession.

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