Rare-Earth Metal

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    In News

    • Recently, U.S. senators have proposed a law aiming to end China’s alleged “chokehold” on rare-earth metal supplies.

    Background 

    • The Chinese Communist Party has a chokehold on global rare-earth element supplies, which are used in everything from batteries to fighter jets,”
      • 80% of the United States’ rare-earth imports in 2019 were from China.

    Major Points 

    • The law would require the departments of the Interior and Defense to create a “strategic reserve” of rare earth minerals by 2025.
    • The law would aim to ensure the United States can guarantee its supplies of rare-earth minerals.
    • It also aims to ensure greater transparency on the origins of the components, restricts the use of rare-earth minerals from China in “sophisticated” defense equipment, and urges the Commerce Department to investigate Beijing’s “unfair trade practices

    About Rare Earth metal

    • Rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements – lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, scandium, yttrium. 
    • They are lustrous silvery-white soft heavy metals.
    • These metals have unusual fluorescent, conductive, and magnetic properties, which make them very useful when alloyed, or mixed, in small quantities with more common metals such as iron.
    • However, with the exception of the highly-unstable prometheum, rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth’s crust.
    • The rare earths occur in many other minerals and are recoverable as by-products from phosphate rock and from spent uranium leaching. 

    Reserves & Production

    • The total world reserves are estimated at 121 million tonnes of rare earth oxides (REO).
    • China alone accounts for 44 million tonnes followed by Brazil and Vietnam (18% each) and Russia (15%).
    • China holds the leading position among producers of rare earth with 140  thousand tonnes.
    • China accounts for 90% of the world’s rare earth production.
    • The other major producers are Australia, USA, Russia, Malaysia and Vietnam. 
    • Concentrates/partially processed intermediate products are further processed at many locations in Europe, USA, Japan and China.

    (Image Courtesy: scdigest.com)

    Global Consumption of REEs

    • In 2019, the U.S. imported 80% of its rare earth minerals from China.
    • The EU gets 98% of its supply from China.
    • The demand for rare earths is centered around countries which manufacture high tech goods and components like automotive catalyst systems, fluorescent lighting tubes and display panels. 
    • The demand, therefore, is expected to emanate mainly from Europe, USA, Japan, China and the Republic of Korea.

    Significance

    • Rare earth materials are utilised in a wide range of critical products enabling many emerging green energy technologies, high tech applications and defence systems.
    • They are used in consumer goods such as smartphones, computer screens and telescopic lenses.
    • They work on clean energy which is the need of the hour today.
    • Traditional uses like Cerium for glass polishing and lanthanum for car catalysts or optical lenses
    • Rare earth minerals, with names like neodymium, praseodymium and dysprosium, are crucial to the manufacture of magnets used in industries of the future of the 21st century’s need of electric vehicles, wind turbines and Drones.

     

    (Image Courtesy: researchgate.net)

    Issues 

    • Difficult to mine: Although they are more abundant than their name implies, they are difficult and costly to mine and process cleanly.
    • Monopoly of few: Most of the reserves being present in few nations causes problems for most of the world because of the concentration of reserves in the hands of few countries.
    • Supply Chain: Forming forward and backward supply chains will create problems when the reserves are mostly limited to one country.
    • Environmental Impact: The chief concern is that the rare earth elements are bound up in mineral deposits with the low-level radioactive element thorium, exposure to which has been linked to an increased risk of developing lung, pancreatic, and other cancers.
    • Chinese Dominance: Amid the transition to green energy, in which rare earth minerals are sure to play a role, China’s market dominance is enough to sound an alarm in western capitals.

    U.S.’s Efforts to Counter

    • The U.S. aims to boost production and processing of rare earths and lithium, another key mineral component, while working with allies to increase sustainable global supply and reduce reliance on competitors.
    • The best hope for boosting American production can be found at the Mountain Pass mine in California.
    • The US Senate passed a law aimed at improving American competitiveness that includes provisions to improve critical minerals supply chains.

    Rare Earth Metals in India

    • In India, monazite is the principal source of rare earths and thorium.
    • Rare earth elements contribute a total value of nearly $200 billion to the Indian economy.
    • India has the world’s fifth-largest reserves of rare earth elements, nearly twice as much as Australia, but it imports most of its rare earth needs in finished form from its geopolitical rival, China.
    • Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL), a Government of India Undertaking, and KMML, a Kerala State Government Undertaking, are actively engaged in mining and processing of beach sand minerals from placer deposits.
    • As per the Foreign  Trade Policy, 2015-2020 and the effective policy on export and import,  the  import of ores and concentrates of rare earth metals and of rare earth oxides including rutile sand are permitted ‘freely’. 

    Challenges for India

    • Scaling Up: The key challenge for India today is to scale up upstream and downstream processes in the rare earths value chain. 
    • Monopoly of Government: India has granted government corporations such as IREL a monopoly over the primary mineral that contains REEs: monazite beach sand, found in many coastal states.
    • Capital-Intensive: The mining and extraction processes are capital-intensive and consumes large amounts of energy.
    • Competition from World: India must open its rare earth sector up to competition and innovation and attract the large amounts of capital needed to set up facilities to compete with, and supply to, the world.
    • Toxic By-products: The mining releases toxic by-products, an issue that has caused some controversy in India before.

    Suggestions

    • New Department for Rare Earths (DRE): The best move forward might be to create a new Department for Rare Earths (DRE) under the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas, drawing on its exploration, exploitation, refining, and regulation capabilities.
    • Allow Private Companies: This DRE should oversee policy formulation and focus on attracting investment and promoting R&D, with its first move being to allow private sector companies to process beach sand minerals within appropriate environmental safeguards. 
    • Autonomous Regulator: It should also create an autonomous regulator, the Rare Earths Regulatory Authority of India (RRAI), to resolve disputes between companies in this space and check compliance.
    • Better Coordination: The DRE could coordinate with other agencies to partner directly with groupings such as the Quad, building up a strategic reserve as a buffer against global supply crises.
    • Encourage Indian Firms: While domestic reforms are awaited, Indian companies can be encouraged to form such junior exploration businesses in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to prospect for REEs and feed value added products into Indian market. 

    Source: TH