What are tech metals and rare earth elements, and how are they used?
What do all the smart devices used in our homes, life-saving medical devices and cutting edge defense technologies have in common?
Devices that use these elements help mankind explore new frontiers in outer space, progress the green energy transformation and build a connected world. Out of 118 elements within the periodic table, a little over 20 of them fall into the categories of rare earth elements and tech metals; let’s look at what these are, how they are used and where they are found.
What are rare earth metals or elements?
Rare earth elements (REEs) are the 17 elements including the 15 lanthanide elements; cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, yttrium and scandium. Yttrium and scandium are included within REEs since they are often found together with lanthanide elements and demonstrate similar properties. Given all these elements are metals, they are also often called rare earth metals.
While these elements are called rare, in fact they can be found within earth’s crust abundantly. What makes them rare is the lack of highly concentrated ores of these elements that can be mined economically.
What are technology metals?
Unlike the rare earth metals, there is not a well-defined list of technology metals. Tech metals are often considered as the relatively rare metals commonly used in high tech devices. These high-tech devices range from consumer electronics and medical devices to advanced defense systems.
Some of the more commonly agreed technology metals are cobalt, lithium, tantalum, indium, gallium, niobium, selenium and zirconium. Given rare earth elements covered above are all metals too, they could also be considered as technology metals.
How rare earth elements and tech metals are used?
Many of these rare earth elements and tech metals are critical ingredients of our high-tech devices 2.
- Cerium is used in light bulbs, TVs and ovens.
- Dysprosium is mixed within alloys used in wind turbines, electric vehicles and nuclear reactors.
- Erbium is used in lasers and fiber optic cables.
- Europium is used in light bulbs, nuclear reactors and lasers.
- Gadolinium is used in magnets, nuclear reactors and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Holmium is used in magnets and nuclear reactors.
- Lanthanum is mixed within alloys that are used in batteries and hydrogen vehicles.
- Lutetium is used as a catalyst in refineries.
- Neodymium is used in magnets and lasers.
- Praseodymium is used in aircraft engines, fiber optic cables and magnets.
- Promethium is used in pacemakers and guided missiles.
- Samarium is used in microwave devices and magnets.
- Terbium is used in light bulbs, memory devices and x-rays.
- Thulium is used in lasers.
- Ytterbium is used in displays, x-ray machines and fiber-optic cables.
- Yttrium is used in radars and as an additive within alloys used in high tech devices.
- Scandium is used for fuel cells and alloys used in jet planes.
- Cobalt is used in super-alloys, jet turbines and rechargeable batteries.
- Lithium is commonly used in batteries.
- Tantalum is used in capacitors, resistors and other electronic equipment.
- Indium is often used in LCD screens.
- Gallium is used in integrated circuits, LEDs and semiconductors.
- Niobium is used in steel alloys that are a part of jet engines and rockets.
- Selenium is used in photocells and rectifiers.
- Zirconium is used in nuclear power stations.
Where rare earth metals are found?
Known reserves of these rare earth metals are found within few countries around the world. China, Brazil, United States, Vietnam and Russia have over 75% of the known reserves of rare earth metals.
When it comes to production of these rare earth metals and elements, the picture looks different. The United States used to be the world’s leading producer of rare earth metals from the 1960s to 1990s with the utilization of Mountain Pass Mine in California. Most recently, China leads the world in the production of these rare earth metals, and has since the 1990s.
Mining is the starting point of the supply chain for many things we use or consume in our lives every day. This wide-spread dependence on mining, beyond just the tech metals, highlights the importance of achieving the lowest cost of production in a sustainable way for miners. Check out the three real-life examples of improved sustainability across mines in this article.
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