What Are Rare Earth Materials Used For?


Rare earths, comprised of 17 elements, are indispensable in many high-tech applications, yet their supply chains are vulnerable. Here’s the best way to find the earth’s materials.

Around 90 percent of rare-earth materials are now produced and mined in China, which has alarmed US executives and military leaders.

1. Electronics

Few Americans know the 17 arcane rare earth elements despite their use in cellphones, flat-screen monitors, lasers, and sonar systems. Their magnetic properties make these minerals essential components in modern life.

China and Japan control most of the rare-earth supply chain, raising concerns among Western executives and defense officials alike. For instance, the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter jet needs rare-earth materials in its magnets and batteries. Furthermore, night vision goggles, laser targeting equipment, range-finding systems, avionic displays, and batteries also rely heavily on rare earth elements for operation.

Rare-earth elements (lanthanides plus yttrium and dysprosium) differ from most metals in that their electrons don’t occupy an orbital shared by multiple electrons; instead, they occupy their subshell, which only has room for one electron at any one time. This unique subshell allows these individual f-electrons to synchronize spins while resisting demagnetizing forces and giving rare-earth alloys their unique magnetic properties.

Rare-earth magnets power the electric motors and drives in hybrid and electric cars. They’re also being used to power wind turbines to cut costs and complexity and lower greenhouse gas emissions—helping avoid climate collapse. As vehicles turn toward renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, demand is expected to surge for neodymium magnets in particular.

Rare-earth magnets must be combined with other metals to work reliably. For instance, neodymium must be combined with lighter rare-earth elements like cerium and yttrium to produce strong magnets without overheating. Europium, terbium, and dysprosium are heavier options that make more powerful motor and wind turbine magnets. Rare earth extraction methods that combine light and heavy rare earths are still evolving but show great promise as part of an overall strategy.

2. Glass

Rare earth elements are an integral component of glass used for cameras, telescopes, and other optical devices. Furthermore, ceramic pigments contain rare earth elements as decolorizers or polishing powders in glass industries.

These elements’ distinctive chemical, physical, and electronic properties set them apart from other metals. Their atomic structures enable them to assume various energy states that confer specific properties upon materials they form with. Their versatility is invaluable when used for particular applications where alternatives wouldn’t perform as efficiently.

Cerium, Lanthanum, Neodymium, Praseodymium, Samarium, and Dysprosium are among the 17 rare earth elements used to make many famous products, including cell phones, flat-screen monitors, and wind turbines. Producing just one magnet requires 300 kilograms of Neodymium alone!

Rare earth elements may sound exotic, but they’re actually very abundant worldwide and readily available as workable deposits. China is currently the leading producer of rare earth metals; Australia, India, Brazil, and Russia also contribute significant quantities. Furthermore, rare earth metals can be recovered from various sources—from obsolete electronics and industrial goods to urban mines—by specialists using acid-free techniques and specific ligands that bind with particular atoms in research labs.

Due to global supply restrictions, rare earth material costs have increased for many end-user products. Edmund Optics is committed to working closely with our supply chain partners and manufacturing facilities to maintain the consistent availability of this material at competitive prices. In support of this effort, Lynas received a contract award from the Department of Defense to build and operate a light rare earth processing facility in Hondo, Texas.

3. Aerospace

Rare-earth elements (the 17 lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium) are sometimes lumped together, but each has distinct properties, pricing, and availability. Many are used in applications such as glassware, ceramics, high-tech equipment, and magnets.

Rare earth minerals may not live up to their name – they can be found worldwide in workable deposits that are far less scarce than copper or gold. Instead, their scarcity arises from not occurring naturally as isolated forms; most can be found mixed with other minerals until late 19th-century technology made separation possible.

Today, China dominates most rare-earth production. But companies such as American Rare Earths, based in Las Vegas, are working to introduce innovative mining and processing technologies onto the market—mainly targeting lighter elements (neodymium and praseodymium) as well as heavier rare earths like dysprosium and terbium.

Magnets are essential components for high-performance motors found in electric vehicles, aircraft engines, specialty glasses, and green energy systems. Furthermore, these materials play a vital role in national defense technologies, including night vision goggles and stealth technology.

The US is deeply concerned by China’s control of the rare-earth industry and has taken steps to diversify its supply by undertaking rare-earth projects across Africa. The recent passage of the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Act is helping these efforts and encouraging investment in these resources. However, whether this legislation will enable the US to overcome Beijing’s attempts at monopolizing this field remains to be seen. Critics argue Beijing’s policies primarily exist to attract high-tech/green technology firms from elsewhere to relocate production facilities to China.

4. Defense

Rare earth elements are known as “superheroes of minerals,” as they provide critical components for high-tech products that support American military supremacy. Neodymium has strong magnetic powers required by missile guidance systems; lanthanum enhances glass clarity for night-vision goggles and camera lenses; and Phosphorescent Europium warms colors in LED lights and plasma displays. These technologies can be found in products like the F-35 fighter jet, Tomahawk missiles, and many more devices used by our warriors.

The lack of transparency around global supply chains for these materials concerns both business leaders and national security officials alike. Although rare earth markets have generally weathered geopolitical storms well in recent years, any disruptions in supply chains may endanger key technologies that rely heavily on them. With 90% of rare earth processing occurring in China alone, this presents vulnerabilities—particularly given Washington’s tenuous relations with Beijing.

Though the Defense Department only consumes around five percent of total rare earth consumption, its equipment and weapons require extensive amounts. As such, the department is investing in ways to establish domestic rare earth element supply chains in the US; projects are already helping establish growing capacity in rare earth separation and processing as well as magnet manufacturing.

These projects represent just the latest steps in an ongoing effort to develop an independent rare-earths sector outside China, yet there remains much work to do. Commercial markets for rare earth materials could thrive without government intervention if policies supporting it were in place; government investments in this sector may seem small in comparison to Pentagon annual budgets but could make a critical difference when providing our warfighters with access to technologies they require for combat operations.

5. Energy

Rare earth minerals contain elements with unique luminescent, magnetic, and electrochemical properties. These properties allow technology to operate more efficiently, reliably, and sustainably by reducing weight, emissions, or energy usage. They drive global economic development while creating lifesaving products and helping us reduce carbon emissions.

But their “rare” label can be misleading: these elements don’t exist exclusively within our planet’s crust; instead, their concentration makes mining and processing costly and time-consuming. Furthermore, extensive processing may be required to separate individual rare earth elements from each other as well as from minerals in ore deposits.

Though the United States mines some rare earth elements itself, the Pentagon remains heavily reliant on foreign supplies from select sources; up to 90 percent of processed rare earths come from China–an alarming statistic that both executives and lawmakers fear.

Rare earth elements play an integral part in military applications such as night-vision goggles, laser targeting systems, range-finding capabilities, and avionic displays. Rare earths also serve a crucial function in lasers utilizing yttrium-aluminum-garnet (YAG) crystals for surgical lasers – with engineers tuning their wavelength by lacing these laser beams with rare earth elements such as neodymium or praseodymium.

While the military relies heavily on foreign suppliers, the Pentagon is currently exploring domestic sources for these materials. One promising option may be waste material left behind by coal-burning power plants: water mixed with coal ash stored in surface impoundments called ponds could contain rare earth elements at concentrations, which would make a recovery and processing cost-effective and yield valuable materials.

However, these ponds have yet to come online, and recovering rare earth elements from them may take years if not decades. Therefore, the Pentagon needs to monitor developments within the energy industry to diversify its supply chain.