Rare Earth Mining

Rare earth elements are used in wide abundance today, in everything from communication to defense technologies. First discovered over 200 years ago, they have since gained in global prominence and are now among the most highly sought-after minerals. Their rise has come at an environmental cost, however, and today’s rare earth mining industry is facing a serious need for new and improved extraction technologies. To learn more about their history and current status, read on.

What’s In A Name?

The rare earth elements are not actually rare insofar as they lack abundance here on Planet Earth. Rather, the term “rare” stems from the fact that they aren’t usually found in the concentrated abundance that makes that makes mining easy and economically viable. Their presence in complex oxides, called “earths” at the time of their discovery in the late 18th century, earned them the rest of their name.

They are typically classified into two groups, the light rare earth elements (LREEs) and the heavy rare earth elements (HREEs). While LREEs possess varying numbers of unpaired electrons, the HREEs have paired electrons. All the rare earths share very similar chemical properties, making them difficult to separate from one another, especially as they are often combined in the same deposits.

Early History of Rare Earths

This early problem of difficulty separating rare earths from one another and from the more complex minerals in which they are found is due to similar chemical properties. Charles James pioneered research into extracting rare earths, with significant success. Then in the mid-1900s, chemists discovered a way to separate distinct rare earths from one another to produce pure minerals. It is now possible to cull rare earth deposits and separate them into their distinct chemical elements.

As rare earths became more economically desirable, mining started in earnest. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing until the 1980s, the main source of rare earths was Mountain Pass in California. Starting in 1985, China overtook California as the dominant supplier and is now the world leader by far.

Where Are All the Elements?

Today, the rare earth story is changing. China still controls the lion’s share of the market, around 85 percent according to a study cited in the Guardian in 2014. 

However, due to skyrocketing prices and restricted exports of rare earth deposits in 2010, China inadvertently spurred world leaders to put a much greater emphasis on finding alternative sources.

In addition to reopening the fabled Mountain Pass mine – which is the world’s first rare earths mining site – companies are looking into rare earths all over the United States and North America, not just in California. 

In fact, despite China’s current stranglehold on the market, rare earth deposits may be found on every continent save Antarctica. The problem is less that the deposits are not available outside of China, and more that China possesses deposits in significant concentration, which makes mining them more economically viable.

Precious and Prized

Today, rare earths are used in a wide range of costly and crucial technologies, such as jet engines, global positioning systems, movie theater projectors, batteries, wind turbines, fiber optic cables, lasers and in some cases even highly sought-after medical drug treatments.

The fact that the rare earths are so inextricably linked to technologies the world doesn’t wish to live without makes for tangled politics. In addition to a global desire to overcome China’s monopoly, rare earth recycling is just now hitting radar across the world. Moreover, the inherent unsustainability of current mining practice is also receiving growing scrutiny.

Inching Toward Sustainability

Today, rare earth mining is becoming more and more lucrative, especially as easily harvested deposits become increasingly depleted. Unfortunately, rare earth mining is not yet a sustainable industry (though in a strange twist of fate, rare earth elements are crucial to a wide range of sustainable technologies).

It is estimated that with China’s percentage of rare earth contribution to the world market, China’s historically lax standards have resulted in disastrous environmental and health impacts on miners and the surrounding environment. It’s not just China; other mines around the world produce similar toxic byproducts.

Although recycling would make an impact, the numbers are depressing: according to some estimates, only 1 percent of rare earths actually get reused in any capacity. Getting consumers to recycle their electronic products and creating efficient processes for extracting the rare earths will help, and will likely become more desirable as the world supply of these extremely valuable minerals grows ever more pinched.

Technology’s Effects

Until mineral recycling becomes the standard globally, rare earth mines worldwide can help decrease the instances of pollution and waste by increasing their accuracy and buffing up mining safety practices. The use of outdated mining technology is not only putting onsite miners at risk, but can also be detrimental to the environment, as erroneous calculations and faulty mine designs can be devastating to the workers and their surroundings. 

Fortunately, along with the rise of the demand for rare earth minerals, the demand for better mining technology has opened a whole new plethora of mining technology aimed at optimizing mining processes and increasing production while significantly decreasing hazardous conditions. Consequently, mining is now one of the safest industry jobs, safer than most resource-related occupations.  

A Step Towards The Future

As we discover more applications for rare earth minerals, there is always the inevitable problem of scarcity. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, the mining industry has to open itself up to innovative mining solutions to keep up with the rising demands without detrimental repercussions. 

Yvan Dionne is the founder and president of PROMINE, a geological modeling and mine planning software firm. Yvan applies his thorough knowledge of AutoCAD programing to create useful mining tools. His experience as a mining engineer and membership in the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy gives Yvan an understanding of the needs of geologists, miners and engineers alike.

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