Unexploited Potential of India in the field of Rare Earth Elements

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Jan 28 2022

Unexploited Potential of India in the field of Rare Earth Elements – Will  Government implement make in India Programe in Rare Earth Industry?

By Beach Mineral Producers Association

  1. The term “rare earth” is the English translation of French terre rare (terre refers to an oxyde). It arises from the rare earth minerals from which they were first isolated, which were uncommon oxide-type minerals (earths) found in Gadolinite extracted from one mine.
  1. Rare earth elements or rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen elements namely Scandium, Yttrium and lanthanides (15 elements in the periodic table with atomic numbers 57 to 71 namely: Lanthanum (La), Cerium (Ce), Praseodymium (Pr), Neodymium (Nd), Promethium (Pm), Samarium (Sm), Europium (Eu), Gadolinium (Gd), Terbium (Tb), Dysprosium (Dy), Holmium (Ho), Erbium (Er), Thulium (Tm), Ytterbium (Yb) and Lutetium (Lu)).
  2. Of these Rare Earth Elements, our country has been blessed with abundance of the following Rare Earth Elements namely Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Praseodymium and Neodymium.
  1. The table below contains the Atomic number, Atomic symbol, their name and use of each of these Rare Earth Elements.
Atomic Number (Z) Atomic Symbol Name Selected Usages
21 Sc Scandium Aluminum- scandium alloy
39 Y Yttrium YAG garnet, YBCO high- temperature superconductors
57 La Lanthanum High refractive index glass, flint, hydrogen storage, battery-electrodes, camera lenses.
59 Pr Praseodymium Rare- earth magnets, lasers, green colors in glass and ceramics, flint
60 Nd Neodymium Rare- earth magnets, lasers, violet colors in glass and ceramics, ceramic capacitors.
  1. In India, these Rare Earth Elements occur as part of Monazite. Monazite is found as part of the beach sand minerals present on the southern and eastern coast of India.
  1. India has 27% of Total world reserve of beach minerals, whereas our mining ratio is 0.01% according to the Atomic Energy Department Additional Secretary key note address.
  1. The beach sand minerals are themselves a complex of seven associated minerals namely Garnet, Ilmenite, Sillimanite, Rutile, Leucoxene, Zircon and Monazite all of these are recognized as associated minerals under Rule 69(x) of the Mineral Concession Rules, 1960.
  1. Of these, Ilmenite, Rutile, Leucoxene, Zircon and Monazite are treated as “Atomic Minerals” under Part B of Schedule I of the Minor Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957. These substances were earlier governed under the provisions of Atomic Energy Act, 1962. Under the said Act, these minerals were also notified as “Prescribed Substances”.
  1. Under the Industrial Policy, 1991, exploitation of these minerals was reserved for Public Sector with only very selective Private Sector participation. The reasoning given by the Government at that time was that there were potential nuclear applications for beach sand, and that in the absence of adequate safeguards and measures, it was necessary to reserve these minerals for the Public Sector.
  1. By 1998, the Government’s thinking had changed. The Government now realized that Titanium was a wonder metal and a source of unlimited export revenue. The Government also realized that Ilmenite, Rutile, and Leucoxene were sources of Titanium, and that they were, as a matter of fact, not radioactive at all. The Government also realized that inherent inefficiencies in PSUs, prevented India from becoming a world player in Titanium, in spite of its staggering Ilmenite reserves. Therefore, the Government notified the 1998 Policy in Beach Sand Minerals, permitting domestic private sector participation in beach sand minerals.
  1. Pursuant to the 1998 policy change, the Department of Atomic Energy commenced issuing licenses for handling Prescribed Substances. Pursuant to this, numerous private sector entrepreneurs entered the field.
  1. As a result, India has emerged as one of the world’s largest players in Titanium Feed stock material.
  1. As the Government began to adopt a more and more scientific approach to the issue, and as the Government’s knowledge and research on the subject increased, it soon realized that Ilmenite, Rutile, Leucoxene and Zircon were not at all fissile in nature and that the policy which described them as “atomic minerals” was poorly researched, retrograde and contrary to national interest.
  1. Thus, on 18.1.2006, the Government issued a notification deleting these four minerals from the list of “prescribed substances”, with effect from 1.1.2007.
  1. Meanwhile, the Government’s knowledge continues to improve. The Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules have been notified and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is rendering yeoman service in a field of radiation safety.
  1. The five REEs we have listed above (Yttrium, Scandium, Lanthanum, Neodymium, and Praseodymium), though found as part of the Monazite mineral, are not fissile and are non- radioactive.
  1. To extract these from the Monazite mineral involves a five step process:
  2. The first step is to mine the monazite that contains the rare earths. Depending on the grade, it could take anywhere from 6 to 86 tonne of ore to produce a single tonne of rare earth mineral.
  1. Next the material goes to a chemical plant for separation. This step, called “cracking,” usually involves using acid or heat. The product that comes out is a rare earth concentrate, containing all REEs mixed together. Cracking can also result in byproducts like Tantalum, Zirconium or Thorium.

iii. Rare earth concentrate must then go to another facility where it is separated into individual rare earths that are refined into oxides. Separation is done by atomic weight, starting with cerium, the most abundant rare earth. To get valuable dysprosium, for example, the less valuable rare earths that come before it on the periodic table must first be separated out. To get terbium, it takes more than 30 days of processing.

  1. Next the rare earths are treated through a process, called beneficiation that produces high-value oxides, metals or magnetic powders. These products are made to the specifications of each manufacturer. An oxide made to the specifications of one customer might not suit another’s needs.
  1. Finally, the rare earths are put into the end product, whether it is a permanent magnet for a wind turbine, or a high-efficiency light bulb.
  2. Thus, extracting these Rare Earth Elements does involve the “cracking” of the Monazite mineral. In the process of cracking, there will be two by-products namely Thorium Oxide (approximately 6%) and Uranium Oxide (approximately 2%) which will have to be handed back to the Government since it is radioactive, and the Rare Earth Oxide which is inert and non-fissile.
  1. REEs are incorporated into many modern technological devices, including superconductors, samarium- cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron high-flux rare- earth magnets, electronic polishers, refining catalysts and hybrid car components (primarily batteries and magnets). Rare earth ions are used as the active ions in luminescent materials used in optoelectronics applications, most notably the Nd: YAG laser. Erbium-doped fiber amplifiers are significant devices in optical-fiber communication systems. Phosphors with rare earth dopants are also widely used in cathode ray tube technology such as television sets. Rare earth oxides are mixed with tungsten to improve its high temperature properties for welding, replacing thorium, which was mildly hazardous to worth with.
  2. The Department of Atomic Energy has issued a publication which shows that following shocking statistics:
Country Reserves of Rare Earth Oxides Annual Production (in tonnes)
Chine 36,000,000 120,000
Brazil 48,000 650
Malaysia 30,000 380
India 1,80,00,000 35

The above shocking statistics is also to be found on the Government website http://www.c-tempo.org.  Countries like Brazil and Malaysia which have a fraction of our reserves are producing many more times than us.  

Now China is monopolizing in this industry. India itself imported more than 40,000 M.Ton of rare earth oxides per year which results approximately 1,52,000 million dollar foreign exchange outgo per year.

Most western economies are looking at India to emerge as a global producer of Rare Earth Elements, so that their dependency on China can be decreased. Unfortunately, the negative approach of the Department of Atomic Energy, stemming for our cold-war, socialist mindset which is preventing Private Sector participation in Rare Earth Elements production.

  1. At present, there are adequate safeguards in the Radiation Protection Rules as well as the Atomic Energy (handling of prescribed substance) Rules to ensure that the cracking is carried out in a safe manner, and the truly fissile by-products are safety handled thereafter. It is needless to mention that Atomic Energy (factories) rules, which are currently applicable to Government Companies can work wonderfully, if extended to private sector also.
  1. Thus, adequate safeguards exist. The Government can also evolve any further conditions as it may see appropriate.
  2. It may be worth mentioning that the present BJP led government had gone to the extent of allowing private enterprises in India in strategic defense production and hence it is more important to allow this sector also for private participation considering the outflow of foreign exchange in importing these products and also the strategic importance of increasing the production of rare earths, thorium and uranium to reduce the dependence of the country on other nations and make “the production and processing of the mineral monazite, a make in India program”.

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