Rare Earths – Materials for the 21st Century
May 06 2015
Heard of praseodymium and dysprosium? They sound like tongue twisters, don’t they? They’re a part of our daily lives – right inside our gaming consoles, mobile phones and digital cameras! So let’s see how they affect us.
Rare Earth Minerals
Praseodymium and dysprosium join 15 other elements in a group called ‘rare earth minerals’. They are actually not rare. They are quite widely spread out on the earth’s crust. Here’s a picture of the periodic table with the rare earths marked:
Rare Earths All Around Us
Rare earths are widely used in making electronic devices, like your computers and laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras and portable music players.
Let’s look inside a digital camera. The lens is made from a special glass that has lanthanum or lutetium in it, so that the images have no distortion. The electronic circuit board has many tiny magnets in it, made from neodymium, samarium and many other rare earths. Europium and terbium are what help make the display look so colourful. All of these elements, in just one device!
Combinations of rare earth oxides are also used to make high temperature superconductors, which are used in MRI and maglev trains. And new uses are being discovered every day.
Rare Earth Diplomacy
Few of us can imagine going out today without our mobiles and music players. We can’t imagine a house without an LCD TV or an office without laptops. In the future, we’ll have even more electronic gadgets. That means we need more supplies of rare earths.
However, concentrated ores of these minerals are quite rare. They are often found with thorium, a radioactive element. Because of this, mining and refining these elements is both expensive.
Today, 97% of all rare earths are mined in China, from the Gobi desert.
This makes countries which have many electronics industries – like Japan, India, Taiwan and South Korea – dependent on imports from China. In recent times, as China develops its own electronics industry, the availability of these minerals to other countries has been reduced.
Today a worldwide search is on for sources of rare earths outside China. India, Brazil, Canada and Australia have reserves, from which thousands of tonnes can be mined. You can see a map of rare earth deposits in India here. Recently our Prime Minister made a big deal with Japan to sell rare earths, and more deals are happening.
As we enter the international year of chemistry, we’re going to hear a lot more of these elements!
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