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Knowledge Center

Rare Earth Elements

Critical metals used in electronics.


Found in the Earth’s crust, rare earths are critical elements used in cars, consumer electronics, computers, communications, clean energy and defense systems.

There are 17 elements that are considered to be rare earth elements (REE). Fifteen of those elements are in the lanthanide series and two additional elements share similar chemical properties. They include scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium.

The big driver for rare earths is magnets, which are used in disk drives, electric motors in cars, wind turbines and other products. Magnets represent one-fifth of the world’s consumption of rare earths. Other end products include alloys and petroleum.

The market for rare earths is cyclical, with certain elements seeing oversupply while others are more limited. Rare earths are not in as limited supply as the name suggests; the most abundant are found in crustal concentrations similar to common metals like chromium, nickel, copper, zinc, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, or lead. Even the least abundant of the rare earths, thulium and lutetium, are about 200 times more common in the earth’s crust than gold.

Despite this abundance, it is unusual to find deposits of rare earths that are large enough and concentrated enough for economical commercial ore extraction. This contributes to rare earth mining taking place in just a few locations around the world, including several locations in China and the Mountain Pass mine in California. The world is dependent on China for rare earth elements, which since the late 1990s has produced and controls upward of 80% of the world’s rare earths.

Uses for rare earth elements
The majority of rare earths are used as catalysts, with ceramics/glass and metallurgy/alloys making up significant portions of the minority.

Neodymium is used to make magnets and lasers. Cerium is used as a catalyst, which helps refine petroleum. It is also used to make special metals.

Praseodymium is used to make metals, which are found in aircraft engines. Dysprosium can be used as an alloy, while terbium is used as a doping material. Lanthanum is used to make lenses for digital and cell phone cameras.

Yttrium, terbium, and europium are used in televisions and display screens. Gadolinium is also used in screens, as well as X-ray and MRI scanning systems. In the U.S., most of the scandium is used to make baseball bats and other sports equipment.

Often, multiple REEs are used in one application: praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, and dysprosium are commonly used together in permanent magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles. Others have little commercial use at present, sometimes due to cost reasons. Lutetium, for example, is primarily used in scientific research.