Rare earths production unlikely to match exploding demand

As the green energy movement continues to grow globally, researchers are becoming concerned about the available supply of rare earth metals used in everything from advanced batteries to wind turbines and catalytic converters.

Image courtesy Fir0002/Flagstaffotos under the GNU Free Documentation License: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:GNU_Free_Documentation_LicenseThe rare earths in question are neodymium and dysprosium – two of the 17 metals classified as rare earth, according to a research study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Materials Systems Laboratory.

The study brings to light the world’s demand for permanent magnets, which are extremely high-end performance for their size. These magnets are used in batteries for hybrid and electric cars as well as the motors in the wind turbines. The study suggests neodymium and dysprosium demand will skyrocket as the world transitions to renewable energy.

The demand increase for neodymium across the next 25 years is predicted to be around 700%, while dysprosium demand is predicted to explode by 2,600% across the same timeframe.

The study indicates that while there are enough rare earth metals to meet today’s demand, future demand increases mean exploration, extraction, and refining will be hard pressed to keep up.

China produces about 98% of the world’s rare earth metals and has roughly 50% of known rare earth reserves. Most rare earths are not actually rare, however they are difficult to mine and, irony alert, the process does have significant environmental consequences.

Mining for rare earths in the U.S. has basically come to a complete stop, mainly because of the aforementioned environmental costs in mining production. The U.S. does have significant rare earths deposits but is now forced to obtain its rare earth requirements from China.

There are two rare earth sub-categories of light and heavy elements; neodymium and dysprosium fall into the heavy elements category. There is a company that specializes in the heavy sub-category – Canada’s Avalon Rare Metals (AVL, quote) which will likely benefit from the increasing demand.