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Frequently Asked Questions

Rare Earths

What are rare earths?

Rare earths, or rare earth elements, are comprised of 17 elements in the periodic table. Of these, 15 are from the lanthanide group of elements from the ‘f’ block of the periodic table: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, (promethium), neodymium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Yttrium and scandium, while not part of the lathanide group, are also considered rare earths because they share similar chemical properties.

Are they really rare?

Despite their name, many of the rare earth elements occur commonly in the earth’s crust. However, the forms in which they occur in the earth are often not concentrated enough to be economically viable to recover. The scarcity of these minerals (previously called "earths") led to the term rare earths. Once they are extracted, rare earths require significant processing before they can be put onto the market.

What is the difference between heavy rare earths and light rare earths?

Rare earths are divided into two distinct groups: heavy rare earth elements (HREEs) and light rare earth elements (LREEs)*. LREEs are the lanthanide elements with the lowest atomic numbers: lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, promethium, neodymium and samarium. Scandium is included as an LREE.

Heavy rare earth elements (HREEs) are the lanthanide elements with higher atomic numbers (hence are heavier): europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Yttrium is included as a heavy HREE because of the similarity of its chemical makeup. Heavy rare earths are less common than their LREE counterparts and tend to be more complex to mine; the Dubbo Project will exploit an important HREE resource.

*However, given the minimal difference in classification in the middle of the list, samarium, europium and gadolinium are sometimes referred to as middle rare earth elements (MREEs).

Why are rare earths important?

Rare earths play a key role in our daily lives because of their broad application in the clean technologies, computing, automotive, entertainment, medical and military fields. In many cases, there is no alternative to rare earths in manufacturing these products.

What are rare earths used for?

Rare earths have a huge range of applications, including:

  • Medical imaging equipment including MRI scanners
  • Wind turbine magnets for the production of clean energy
  • Car parts, including catalytic converters, batteries, fuel injectors and hybrid/electric cars
  • Home entertainment systems - TV and computer monitors
  • Phones, laptops and other smart devices
  • Disk drives and CDs
  • Military applications - including precision guided munitions, missiles and smart bombs
A4 flyer rare earths A-web

 

In many cases, rare earths are used to make the permanent magnets that are essential to many of these systems, due to their ability to produce an intense magnetic field. They can be used to make extremely light magnets for hybrid cars, increasing the cars’ performance because of the reduced weight of their components.

Who supplies rare earths to the global market?

China is the major supplier of rare earths, providing between 90-95% of the global market supply. India and the US, once leading global suppliers, still produce some rare earth products, but their contributions are now dwarfed by China’s huge hold over the market.

Other countries, including Australia, Canada and South Africa, are undertaking exploration projects and have also commenced mining activities on a range of large rare earth deposits that have the potential to make a significant contribution to global supplies.

What is Australia’s position in the global supply of rare earths?

Australia has not traditionally played a major role in the global supply of rare earths.

The DP will make a significant contribution to lifting Australia’s participation in the global market, and will also open up an alternative stream of rare earth materials outside of the dominant Chinese market.

How much will the DP contribute to the global supply of rare earths?

The DP is based upon one of the world’s largest in-ground resources of the metals zirconium, hafnium, niobium, tantalum, yttrium and rare earth elements. Due to the size of the resource, the mine is expected to process 1,000,000 tonnes of ore throughput per year over a period of 70 years or more.

Resource

World market (tpa) in 2012

Expected DP output (tpa) in 2016

Zirconium materials (ZrO2)

200,000 (↑10% pa)

16,000

Rare earth oxides

125,000 (↑4-5%pa)

5,974

Ferroniobium (FeNb)

90,000 (↑10%pa)

3,000

 

Why has the cost of rare earths increased so much in recent years?

The cost of rare earths has soared in recent years due to a huge increase in demand for green technologies and consumer technology products.

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