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Rare earth elements - a source for opportunity

Published:Thursday | March 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Almost all the major parts in electronic components today are manufactured from raw material classified as rare earth elements. When you look at the Periodic Table, there is a block of two rows of elements located below the main body of the chart. These elements, plus lanthanum (element 57) and actinium (element 89), are known collectively as the rare earth elements or rare earth metals. Actually, they aren't particularly rare, but prior to 1945, long and tedious processes were required to purify the metals from their oxides.

Rare earth minerals have the following properties:

The rare earths are silver, silvery-white or grey metals.

The metals have a high lustre, but tarnish readily in air.

The metals have high electrical conductivity.

The rare earths share many common properties. This makes them difficult to separate or even distinguish from each other.

There are very small differences in solubility and complex formation between the rare earths.

The rare earth metals naturally occur together in minerals (e.g., monazite is a mixed rare earth phosphate).

The Big Fuss

China, the main supplier of rare earth minerals, has recently imposed restrictions on its export and has also mandated that companies wishing to purchase rare supplies set up their processing plants in the country. This can severely effect the growth of technology as most parts in electronics comprise of parts made from these elements, thus making it the new oil.

Some examples of rare elements uses include:

Europium: This extremely rare but critical chemical makes the red colour for television monitors and energy-efficient LED light bulbs.

Lanthanum: A primary component of the nickel-metal hydride battery in Toyota's popular hybrid car, Prius. The Prius also incorporates neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium.

Neodymium: This represents a main component of the permanent magnets at the heart of the most efficient wind turbines.

New Development Plans for Production

In an attempt to thwart the formation of a new OPEC-type regime over the rare elements, several countries have launched mines to excavate the elements and meet the growing demand including Australia, Canada and the United States. Maybe it's time for an exploration of the different types of resources Jamaica has to offer. The search for oil as a revenue has been prolonged for decades. New technologies emerge and with them a new set of resource requirements occur, and with each one a new opportunity for research and revenue.

- V.H.