Industry background

Rare earth elements (REE) are used by many industries, from electronics and green technologies to national security. Materials derived from REE include magnets used for high efficiency engines, wind turbines, and capacitors required for computer assembly and other electronics devices. Rare earths are not technically rare, as they are found in many places globally, but they are not well known elements.



PBS: Report on rare minerals

CNN: Rare earth shortage fears in Japan

CNBC: China bets on rare earth resources

CBC Radio—The Current: Shrinking supply

BBC Radio 4—Costing the Earth: Overview of rare earths

UNEP: Recycling rare metals

Background info

Origins and discovery of rare earth

USGS summary

Industry applications

Common products


Metal Miner

Science Blog

Rare earths timeline

Here are selected historical events that have affected our knowledge, the use of, and supply of rare earths:


1787 Discovery of the black mineral "ytterbite" by Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius at a quarry in the village of Ytterby, Sweden.
1803 Scientists of the time obtained a white oxide and called it ceria.
1839 Carl Gustav Mosander discovered an oxide of the soluble salt lanthana.
1842 Mosander separates lanthana further into didymia and pure lanthana. The same year, he also separated ytteria into three oxides pure ytteria, terbia and erbia (all the names are derived from the town name Ytterby).
1879 The new element samarium was isolated by Paul Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran from the mineral samarskite.
1886 Samaria was further separated by Lecoq de Boisbaudran in 1886 and a similar result was obtained by Jean Charles Galissard de Marignac by direct isolation from samarskite.
1901 Fractional crystallization yielded europium.
1913 Henry Moseley, using x-ray spectra obtained by diffraction in crystals, made it possible to identify missing elements, even before their discovery.
Late 1930s More efficient synthetic resins were introduced as ion exchangers which would aid in separating rare earth elements.
1940s Frank Spedding developed an ion exchange procedure for separating and purifying rare earth elements.
1950s Industrial use of rare metals was very limited until efficient separation techniques were developed.
1950s South Africa took the status as the world's largest rare earth source.
1952 The Molybdenum Corporation of America (called Molycorp after 1974) started production at a small mining claim at Mountain Pass, California.
1960s-1980s Molycorp becomes the largest world producer of rare earths.
1967 Europium becomes the first high-purity rare earth element to enter the marketplace as a source of the color red in TV sets. There had been color TV before europium, but color quality was weak.
1984 U.S. production of rare earths peaks.
1993 China surges rare earth production and quickly becomes the dominant supplier of rare earth metals.
2002 Mining halted at Mountain Pass owing to both cost and environmental concerns.
2006 China begins reducing output to cut pollution.
Dec. 2, 2008 Toyota launches rare earth business by acquiring a trading company specializing in rare earth products.
2009 The Mineral Resources Program of the USGS organized a new project under the title Minerals at Risk and For Emerging Technologies.
Sep. 1, 2009 China announces plans to reduce its rare earth export quota to 35,000 tons per year in 2010–2015.
March 17, 2010 Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy and International Affairs David Sandalow announces that the U.S. Department of Energy is developing its first-ever strategic plan concerning rare earth metals and other materials in energy components.
March 17, 2010 H.R. 4866 introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives "to reestablish a competitive domestic rare earths minerals production industry."
May 13, 2010 UNEP panel discussion and press release on feasibility of rare metal recycling.
July 8, 2010 China announces policy to reduce rare earth exports by 72% for the remainder of 2010.
July 29, 2010 Molycorp becomes a publicly-traded company with plans to build new mining facility in 2011.
Sep. 22, 2010 China halts shipments of rare earths to Japan after a dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain.
Oct. 14, 2010 German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “urgently necessary” for Europe to compete with China to develop and deliver raw materials.
Oct. 26, 2010 A research team at the University of Tokyo announces they developed an method to extract rare earths from neodymium magnets used in electric cars and hard disks
Nov. 22, 2010 Some shipments bound for Japan from China resume, after seven week interruption.
Nov. 23, 2010 Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd vows to help supply rare-earth metals to Japan on a long-term basis. Japanese industry has worked out procurement deals with several countries, including Australia and the U.S..
Dec. 14, 2010 China's Ministry of Finance indicates the nation will raise tariffs on rare earth exports in 2011.
Dec. 15, 2010 The U.S. Department of Energy releases report raising questions about security of supply for technology products and clean energy industries.
Jan. 7, 2011 President Obama signs the fiscal 2011 defense authorization act into law. The bill requires that the military conduct an immediate review of its needs for rare earth metals and stipulates that the department establish “an assured source of supply” for rare earth metals by 2015.
March 11, 2011 A massive 9.0 earthquake near the Fukushima power plant in Japan creates a nuclear accident potentially worse than Chernobyl in 1986. Solar and wind – clean energy technologies that use rare earths – make it back into national energy policy discussions, potentially increasing demand.
March 29, 2011 Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the Lynas’s Pahang plant was subject to an environmental impact assessment, potentially delaying the launch of the rare earths refinery this year. Residents are concerned about waste products associated with the processing of rare earths.

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