Rare Earth Minerals and Products
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Published: April 2013
The production and consumption of rare earth minerals constitute a relatively small but diverse and dynamic segment of the industrial minerals, metallurgical, electronic and chemical industries. The various markets for rare earths, as mixtures, individual elements or compounds, have developed in a very sporadic manner. Several markets have developed that initially gave promise of consuming major amounts of rare earths, only to have the rare earths displaced by less-costly alternatives. Rare earth–exchanged fluidized catalytic cracking (FCC) catalysts continue to be a major market for rare earths, with the introduction of reformulated gasolines. New markets are growing for individual high-purity rare earths, particularly for neodymium for use in high-performance permanent magnets. As a result of these changes, the rare earth oxide (REO) industry has developed into a two-tiered industry. The mixed REOs, which formerly constituted the bulk of the business, show stagnant demand, while the purified, specialized REOs show strength and good prospects. Special, relatively small-volume applications have shown vigorous growth over the last ten years, with corresponding price fluctuations.
Beginning in the 1980s, world REO supply increasingly shifted to China. Since 1993, China has consistently been the largest producer. Mineral deposits in southern China are particularly abundant in the rare earth elements of higher atomic weight, especially yttrium, as well as the lighter elements samarium and neodymium. Over the last ten years, Chinese producers have increasingly added value to their rare earth exports by isolating pure rare earths, while Chinese exports of mixed rare earth ores and concentrates have fallen. Viewed as a single entity, the state-owned rare earth–producing mining companies of China are the dominant world supplier. China alone accounted for 86% of world production in 2012.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of rare earth products:
Approximately 64% of the rare earths used in the United States are consumed in catalysts. Within the catalysts segment, 28% of the rare earths are consumed in automotive emission control catalysts and roughly 72% in FCC catalysts used in crude petroleum refining. Other catalyst uses include those for air pollution control and chemical production. The catalyst markets will continue to grow through 2017, as emission control regulations are tightened and the efficiency of catalytic cracking is further promoted.
There is no production from native rare earth mineral ores in Western Europe. Approximately 64% of the rare earths used in Western Europe went into catalysts. Petroleum, automobile and air emission, industrial and other catalyst market segments are all set to grow moderately over the next five years.
Like Western Europe, Japan has no domestic source of rare earth minerals; supplies are imported. Unlike the United States and Western Europe, Japan uses only small amounts of rare earths to make catalysts. Formerly, Japan was the world's largest rare earth–based permanent magnet producer, but over the last twelve years has been steadily overtaken by China. Approximately 21% of REOs used in Japan are for magnets. Glass and ceramic applications, particularly polishing compounds and additives for camera lenses, represent 22% of total REO consumption in Japan. Phosphors are another significant application for rare earths in Japan. Rare earth market segments are currently weak in Japan, but with greater availability of rare earth materials from outside China over the next five years, overall growth is expected to average 5.8% per year through 2017.
China is the largest consumer of rare earths, followed by Japan in 2012. China's largest domestic rare earth–consuming market is metallurgical, followed by catalysts, glass-ceramics, magnets, phosphors and other new materials markets. All of these markets are growing faster in China than the comparable markets in the United States, Western Europe and Japan. China also uses rare earths as fertilizers, although the benefits of this practice have not been demonstrated outside the region.