Study considers impact of demand for rare earth metals

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Demand for two rare earth metals available almost exclusively in China is likely to increase by between 600 and 2,600 per cent over the next 25 years.

This is the conclusion of a study published recently in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology that points out that production of dysprosium and neodymium — commonly used in wind turbines and electric vehicles — has been increasing by a few percentage points per year.

In a statement, Randolph E Kirchain, PhD, and colleagues at MIT explained that there has been long-standing concern about a secure supply of the so-called rare earth elements.

These metals are used to make aircraft components and lasers for medical imaging. Dysprosium and neodymium are critical for current technologies for manufacturing wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Those technologies, Kirchain noted, would be essential in carrying out a proposed stabilisation in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, at 450 parts per million.

Kirchain’s team analysed the supply of lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium and yttrium under various scenarios.

They projected the demand for these 10 rare earth elements through to 2035.

In one scenario, demand for dysprosium and neodymium could be higher than 2,600 and 700 per cent respectively.

To meet that need, production of dysprosium would have to grow each year at nearly twice the historic growth rate for rare earth supplies.

‘Although the RE [rare earth] supply base has demonstrated an impressive ability to expand over recent history, even the RE industry may struggle to keep up with that pace of demand growth,’ the authors said.

They also point out that shortfalls in future supply could be mitigated through materials substitution, improved efficiency, and the increased reuse, recycling and use of scrap.