Questions and Answers : Rare earths are not as rare as their name suggests - our modern world would be different without them

What are rare earths? They have nothing to do with earth.

Questions and Answers : Rare earths are not as rare as their name suggests - our modern world would be different without them

What are rare earths? They have nothing to do with earth. There are 17 silvery and comparatively soft metals with evocative names: scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium. They are found in this order in the periodic table of chemical elements.

Rare earths are very reactive. In air, for example, they quickly combine with oxygen to form oxides and become dull in the process. This oxidation gave them their name: the oxides used to be called "earths".

What do you need rare earths for? For example, for the energy transition: The EU wants to become climate-neutral by 2050 and is therefore focusing on renewable energies such as wind power and more environmentally friendly mobility. But large amounts of strong magnets are needed for electric motors in electric or hybrid cars as well as for offshore wind turbines. These contain neodymium, often also dysprosium. According to the German Raw Materials Agency, magnets are a particularly important and rapidly growing field of application for rare earths.

Batteries also contain rare earths, namely lanthanum and cerium. Anyone who uses LED lights and plasma screens is dealing with yttrium or europium, and the daylight-bright floodlights in football stadiums shine thanks to scandium. Erbium or ytterbium are used in lasers, and gadolinium improves imaging in magnetic resonance imaging as a contrast medium.

Where do the metals come from? The USA used to mine the most rare earths, today China is the world market leader. According to the German Mineral Resources Agency, 168,000 tons of rare earth oxides were mined there in 2021 – not including an estimated 50,000 tons from illegal mining. Other important producing countries are the USA, Myanmar and Australia.

Why are rare earths so precious? At least not because they are rare, as people used to think. The element cerium, for example, is as common as copper or nickel. Rare earths are in great demand because they are required for many innovative technologies, but are only mined in a few countries around the world, such as China or the USA. In addition, they only occur in mixed form and in relatively low concentrations in ores or clay minerals and require complex processing. It is therefore very complex to obtain in its pure form.

To what extent does extraction affect the environment? Refining, i.e. the processing or separation of the individual metals, uses large amounts of water, chemicals and energy: With the help of acids, alkalis, solvents, heat and energy-intensive electrolysis, the pure metals are isolated via many intermediate stages . This happens in plants in China, Estonia, Malaysia, Russia or India – sometimes under catastrophic environmental and health conditions. This creates toxic exhaust gases and dust, radioactive sludge and acidic waste water. In the vicinity of the world's largest mine, Bayan Obo in China, increased mortality from lung cancer was detected years ago.

Why are rare earths a politically sensitive issue? Europe does not yet have a commercial mine for these raw materials. In Germany there are some deposits of rare earths in Bavaria or Saxony, but the concentrations in the ground are so low that mining would not be worthwhile.

Instead, a single country dominates the world market: around 60 percent of all rare earths are mined in China. The country even has a share of about 90 percent in the processing of the precious metals. If China were to make trade more difficult with export tariffs or export restrictions, this could lead to delivery bottlenecks and price increases in numerous sectors of the economy.

High-tech companies are already worried about their access to two other metals: since August 1, 2023, China has restricted the export of gallium and germanium, which are not rare earths but are also indispensable for the microchip industry.