What are rare earths?

Why is the US racing to onshore their supplyand how is American Rare Earths supporting those efforts?

What are rare earths and why are they ‘rare’?

If you’ve ever read about rare earths elements (REE) before you probably already know that they’re not actually very rare – they’re in plants, oceans, soil and there could even be some inside our bodies.

What is rare, are concentrations of REE large enough to economically mine and extract. What’s special about them is that they are now classed as critical minerals in Australia, the US and EU because they’re vital for the transition to clean energy, modern communications and national security. One of their unique properties is that the 17 REEs occur together as a group, albeit in varying proportions across different deposits.

There are other unique characteristics of REEs and the market for them which we’ll explore further.

What are rare earths used for and what’s driving skyrocketing demand?

REEs are used in a shopping list of household items such as flat screen TVs, self-cleaning ovens, laptops and smartphones. They amplify signals in fibre optic cables. They’re also used in medical equipment such as pacemakers and advanced imaging machinery. In the defence sector permanent magnets are required for jet fighter engines, missile systems, satellites and communications systems.

However, what’s driving the exponential growth in demand for REEs is the use of permanent magnets in renewable energy products including electric vehicles, wind turbines and generators.

A key ingredient of permanent magnets is an alloy of the REEs Neodymium and Praseodymium (NdPr), or ‘the green twin and the new twin’ as they’re sometimes called.

Leading independent research firm Adamas Intelligence highlighted total magnet rare earth oxide demand in its Rare Earth Magnet Market Outlook to 2030, forecasting consumption to rise five-fold by 2030, from US $2.98 billion (in 2021) to US $15.65 billion at the end of the decade.

What about Scandium?

Fifteen REEs occur in what’s called the lanthanide series on the periodic table of elements. Scandium and yttrium are not in this series but are usually considered REEs due to their similar chemical characteristics.

The scandium market is expected to register a compound average growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 11% (in terms of volume), from 2022 to 2027. The major factors driving the growth are the accelerating usage in solid oxide fuel cells and the rising demand for aluminium-scandium alloys used a wide products from sports equipment to aerospace.

Why it’s so important for the US develop its own industry?

The modern economy’s acute need for REEs has dramatically sharpened the US Government’s focus on securing its own supply chain. China started to ramp up its rare earths sector in the 1980s and by 2011 its state-owned enterprises in the mining and recovery sectors were providing 95% of global supply.

Since then some other countries have stepped up their mining efforts and China’s dominance over global mined REE production – the unprocessed ore taken directly from the ground – declined to 58%, according to US Geological Survey data.

However, the midstream and downstream (processing/refining and selling plus physical delivery) links of the REE supply chain are still about 85% controlled by China. That’s because the REE mixed concentrate output from mines outside China is mostly shipped and sold to Chinese midstream processors.

The midstream challenges

A unique challenge of processing REEs is that they’re difficult to separate from each other.

They’ve even been likened to “a very close-knit family who want to hold hands all the time”, by Director of Mineral Resources Advice at Geoscience Australia, Dr Allison Britt.

The two most in-demand REEs – which are also prevalent at American Rare Earth’s La Paz project – are praseodymium and neodymium. This pair of REEs are sometimes referred to as “the twins” because they’re always together and are difficult to pull apart, with neodymium meaning “the new twin” in Greek and praseodymium meaning “the green twin”.

The first step in REE extraction typically includes crushing the ore and separating the rare earths oxide (REO) by flotation, magnetic or gravimetric separation. This separation process is carried out near the mine site to reduce transport costs.

Subsequent steps change the concentrated mineral into more valuable high-purity REEs via various thermal, chemical, hydrometallurgy and metallothermic techniques – or, more simply put, intensive heat, chemical and water treatments.

Another complicating factor with REEs from some projects is that radioactive materials are present in varying concentrations in REE deposits, making waste disposal a challenge. This is not the case with American Rare Earths’ ore, which is why it has been chosen by US Government funded R&D projects developing clean, green supply chain diversity and security.

What is American Rare Earth doing to help the US build its own supply?

American Rare Earths is collaborating with the following top-tier R&D programs developing new REEs refining technologies that are both reliable and environmentally sustainable.

1. The US Department of Energy Critical Minerals Institute

Being a member of the US Department of Energy Innovation Hub, the Critical Minerals Institute (CMI), has given American Rare Earths the opportunity to support leading R&D in green and clean REE recovery technology.

Fellow organizations on the CMI Team Members list include the world’s second-largest metals producer Rio Tinto (as the only other company with REE mining deposits involved), and highly esteemed national institutions including the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Ames Laboratory, Penn State University and the University of Arizona.

The researchers affiliated with the CMI and the work they do are the competitive advantage for the US in its mission to responsibly secure a sustainable domestic rare earths supply chain.

2. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Rare Earths bioengineering research program

This fascinating program led by the US Department of Defense encourages scientists to engineer a new REE supply chain by using ‘biomining’ approaches through the Environmental Microbes as a Bio-Engineering Resource (EMBER) program. Like the technologies being researched by the CMI, this technique is far more environmentally friendly than traditional processing.

By supporting organizations at the cutting edge of innovation in REE recovery, American Rare Earths is helping to progress disruptive, green technologies while positioning itself at the forefront of US efforts to secure its own fully integrated supply chain


An Analysis of the Current Global Market for Rare Earth Elements, University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources

Rare Earth Magnet Market Outlook to 2030, Adamas Intelligence

The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, International Energy Agency

Future Tense, ABC Radio, 30 January 2022

Scandium Market Forecasts 2022-2027, Modor Intelligence

Get the latest updatesstraight to your inbox