For the past two decades, global demand for rare earth elements (REEs) has experienced an upward trend (Figure 1). This is projected to continue to grow as a result of the developing REE supply chain. During this time, China has been the primary producer and refiner of rare earth elements. With China’s dominance of the supply of REEs, the rest of the world (ROW) is currently dependent on Chinese exports to meet its own growing needs; however, recent behaviors have demonstrated a desire to retain more of the materials for internal consumption. According to the Industrial Mineral Company of Australia (IMCOA), Chinese export quotas are projected to gradually decrease from 30,200 tonnes in 2011 to 22,000 tonnes in 2016. In 2011, ROW demand exceeded Chinese exports of REE by 4,800 tonnes. By 2016, this gap is projected to widen to 34,000 tonnes indicating a need for new ROW supply sources.
The ROW supply is projected to experience deficits of most REEs through 2015, with many of the light rare earths coming into balance during this time. A closer examination (Figure 3) of the projected supply and demand picture in 2016 shows several REEs are projected to continue to be in deficit. These REEs that have been identified as being particularly likely to experience future supply/demand deficits are termed by the Department of Energy as being critical rare earths or CREE. Texas Rare Earth Resources believes that the Round Top Mountain project has the potential to be an integral source of rare earth elements, particularly of HREE and CREE helping to fill the needs of the growing global supply chain.
Current market projections for REEs rely primarily on existing sources of demand. The largest component of which are magnets and metal alloys, both of which are responsible for consuming approximately 21,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides/oxide equivalents in 2011. Magnets are expected to constitute the largest portion of demand in 2016, reaching 36,000 tonnes, according to the Industrial Mineral Company of Australia (IMCOA).
As this industry continues to grow and diversify the supply chain, new sources of demand for REEs will arise as is evidenced by the projected 26% annual growth (Figure 4) in “other’’ sources of demand. This category includes optical and medical applications among those with the potential to have a sizable impact on future supply/demand dynamics, especially that of critical and heavy rare earth elements.
Several of these potential other demand sources are:
Magnetorestrictors (terfenol-D [terbium-dysprosium-iron]): Application of magnetic field changes terfenol’s shape, conversely, change in shape causes change in its magnetic field. Applications in actuators, acoustics, micropositioner, sonar, valves, micropumps, and satellite telescopes.
Magnetic Refrigeration: Applications in home/auto air conditioning, household appliances. Typically gadolinium based alloys with dysprosium, erbium, and other non-REE materials.
Magnetooptics: Use of lasers to write, read, and erase information on terbium-based thin films (up to 50 times higher storage density versus magnetic hard disks). Yttrium is also used.
Superconductors (YBCO [yttrium-barium-copper-oxide]): High-temperature conductors with applications in circuitry, power generators, electric storage units, and electric motors.
Kingsnorth, Dudley J., IMCOA – RARE EARTHS: Reducing our dependence upon China, Metal Pages Rare Earths Conference, Beijing, September 2011/February 2012.