Rare Earth Summer

Welcome to Rare Earth Summer. A series of informational posts meant to tell you all about the unsung metal heroes that make our tech-driven lives possible. We will talk about how they are used, where they are found, the chemical properties and the ethics involved. Let’s dive in. 

Quicklinks to stories in this series: Dysprosium | Lanthanum | Neodymium | Cerium | Gadolinium

The rare earth elements are sometimes also referred to as the lanthanides—referring specifically to the series of 15 elements running from lanthanum (La) to lutetium (Lu). Also Scandium (Sc) and Yttrium (Y). Courtesy of the Science History Institute. Illustration by Claud Li.

What earths are rare?


So, first off, let’s deal with the misnomer. “Rare earths” (REs) are not “rare”. According to research by the USGS, REs are about as abundant as lead or molybdenum and are more than 1000 TIMES more abundant than gold and platinum. Rare my ***.


But that’s not the whole story. They are still considered rare because unlike other metals like silver, nickel, or palladium, REs do not often exist as ore. In other words, the idea of dredging a creek for hunks of REs…not gonna happen. Instead, these metals exist as oxides mixed with other metals. Think of it like picking toppings out of rocky road ice cream vs. removing chocolate from a chocolate milk shake. 


What are rare earths used for? 


In short, so many things. Due to their varied electrochemical and colorful physical properties, they are used in ceramics, screens, lasers, dyes, nuclear applications, magnets, and so many more. Basically, they make your phone work. They make your computer work. They’re in lights and low-energy green tech. And they are a hot topic in chemical research.


You can check out a more comprehensive list, here.

Where do they come from?


According to investingnews.com, the top five producers of REs are (in order): China, USA, Myanmar, Australia, Madagascar. However there is a gulf when it comes to actual production. In 2020, China produced 140,000 metric tons of REs. Meanwhile the US only produced 38,000 metric tons, as there is only one RE producer (MP Materials in California). As such, the US imports much of its REs and they are now classified by the department of defense as “critical materials”. This is especially interesting as China has reportedly threatened banning exports of REs.


The other part of this story— RE mining in China has had devastating environment impacts.  Little regulation, lack of remediation, and greed have caused irreparable harm. However, the cleanup has begun. The takeaway here is not that we should not mine; we need these materials. Instead, we should mine in places with high environmental standards and regulations.


Want more general overview? Check out Science History Institute RE overview for some great info!