Minerals containing rare earths are currently produced in seven countries and regions including China, Russia, the US, Australia, India, Brazil, and Malaysia. Lanthanum and cerium accounted for nearly 60% of world consumption of rare earths in 2012 followed by neodymium, yttrium, and praseodymium. The first rare earth was discovered in 1787 in a village in Sweden. Since then they have become technologically, environmentally, and economically important across the globe.
History of Rare Earths
Despite their name, rare earths can be found in abundance all over the world. Even our backyards may contain the tiniest amount of rare earths, perhaps a few parts per million. Although the rarest rare earth is nearly 200 times more abundant than gold, these oxidised minerals are considered to be rare because most deposits are of very low quality and concentration, making them uneconomical to mine.
The first ever rare earth was discovered by Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius who found a heavy, black rock in a mine in the Swedish village of Ytterby. He named the type of rock ytterbite (later renamed gadolinite). The rock was a mineral composed of cerium, yttrium, iron, silicon, and a number of other rare earth elements.
During the early and late 1800s, there were further discoveries and developments relating to rare earths in Sweden. For example, by 1803 there were two known rare earth elements, yttrium and cerium. It took the next 30 years for researchers to discover that other rare earth elements were contained in the these two ores. This is because the similarity of the chemical properties of rare earths make it difficult to separate them.
By 1842, further progress had been made, with a total of six rare elements confirmed including yttrium, cerium, lanthanum, didymium, erbium and terbium. The next most significant development was during the 1940s when scientists in the US, as part of the Manhattan Project, developed the chemical ion exchange procedures for separating and purifying rare earth elements.
Over the next few decades, there were further discoveries of new rare earths and how they could be used but prior to 1965, there was relatively little demand. At that time, most of the world’s supply was being produced from placer deposits in India and Brazil. In the 1950s, South Africa became the leading producer from rare earth bearing monazite deposits. At the same time, the Mountain Pass Mine in the US began producing minor amounts of rare earth oxides from a Pre-cambrian carbonite.
It was in the mid-1960s that demand for rare earths really ramped up following the launch of the first colour television sets. Europium was an essential material for producing the colour images. In the US, the Mountain Pass Mine began producing europium from bastnasite which contained about 0.1% europium. This led to the US becoming the largest rare earth producer in the world at that time.
By the 1980s, China had begun producing notable amounts of rare earth materials. A decade later, China was acknowledged as the world’s leading producer. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, China steadily strengthened its hold on the world’s rare earths market due to it being able to produce and sell rare earths at such low prices, so much so that other suppliers throughout the world were unable to compete and thus stopped operation.
During the 2000s, world demand for rare earth metals continued to sky rocket, particularly within the defence, aviation, industrial, consumer electronics, and low-carbon industries. This resulted in a number of non-Chinese based producers establishing new operations including at our Mt Weld site in Western Australia.