Mining and exploration review north of the 60th parallel

Rare Earth Elements Help Better our Future Well-Being and Lifestyle

By Ian London

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Okay, so how can ‘rare earth metals’ contribute to our future well-being and lifestyles?  Well, first there is nothing like asking yourself a question to which you have an answer and second, there is nothing like answering a question with a question. What are the ‘rare earths elements’ anyway?

Well, the ‘rare earth elements’ is a group of 15 unique elements that appear toward the bottom of the Periodic Table (if you remember any of your high school chemistry) that include sometimes challenging names to remember – neodymium, dysprosium, terbium, and europium. This group of elements, with their unique chemical, mechanical, magnetic, and optical properties are the key ingredients in making the special components for today’s wind turbines, hybrid cars, iPods, MRI machines, energy efficient motors and lighting, battery-operated power tools, computers, solar panels and batteries, surgical equipment, and medicines.

Rare earth (permanent) magnets are key components in constructing brushless motors, motors that convert more of the electricity into real work, rather than lose valuable energy as heat from inefficient operation. These motors are appearing everywhere- in refrigerators, elevators, air conditioners, dishwashers, and in cars (as part of the hybrid motor/engine, power windows, power seats, etc.). In wind turbines, rare earth magnets, which remain effective even at higher temperatures, increase the amount of wind energy that actually gets converted into electricity and, in some designs, eliminates the need for gearboxes, further reducing maintenance costs.

Hybrid cars use permanent magnets (made permanent by the addition of, or doping by, rare earths neodymium and dysprosium) in assemblies that convert mechanical energy from the brakes into electricity to power the car.  And yes, there are rare earths in the special Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) or soon-to-be adopted Lithium-ion batteries that store the electricity in these cars.

15-2Certain rare earth elements are also used to produce the colours in many of today’s video displays. For example, Europium-doped phosphors give off a red light. Terbium-based phosphors emit a green light, and there are others. Combine these items in different applications, and you get the colours on a flat screen TV, computer screen, cell phones, and iPods.

In the 1950’s, the global demand for rare earths was a modest 1,000 tonnes per year. Over the last 25 years, sparked by the development of the permanent neodymium-iron-boron (‘neo’) magnet, we’ve discovered many of these new rare earth applications, and there are many more being developed every day. In 2003, the global demand rose to 85,000 tonnes per year; by 2010 it is expected to be 125,000 tonnes per year. Demand for 2015 and 2020 is projected to be 200,000 and 280,000 tonnes per year respectively. Demand is rapidly outgrowing the supply, especially for what are referred to as the more valuable “heavy” rare earths (a story for another day).

The rare earth mining and processing sector is also relatively new and specialized compared to traditional iron, gold, and copper mining. Almost 95 per cent of the world supply of rare earths currently comes from China.  Thankfully, new deposits are being discovered and developed in Australia, the U.S., India, and most prominently in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Avalon Rare Metals’ Nechalacho Project, situated at Thor Lake approximately 100 km southeast of Yellowknife, is one of the largest heavy rare earth-rich deposits and is clearly a valued solution to help fill the ultimate demand. Avalon has recently received positive results from its extensive pre-feasibility study, has entered into the permitting process, and has secured financing to complete the detailed bankable feasibility studies and assessments. It is anticipated that the Nechalacho project can be in production in 2015, just in time to meet the growing demand.

Of course, the success of the mining sector, especially as we advance current and future operations, will be built upon the pillars of environment, social, and sustainability governance. I am quite confident that, like Avalon, other companies embrace these principles and will continually learn and achieve the many expectations.

I think you’ll agree, as this long list of innovative products is helping us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  This provides faster and more reliable communications, and reduces carbon emissions and its negative consequences, which ultimately enriches our well-being and lifestyles.

15-4 About the author

Ian London is a market development and energy advisor to Avalon Rare Metals Inc., and is one of the founding editors of the raremetalblog.com

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