Revealing the Current Proven Rare Earth Reserves – How Many Years Do We Have?
The mining industry is under increasing pressure to maintain a continuous supply of rare earth elements as worldwide demand for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and other high-tech uses rises. These 17 elements, which include neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium, are essential in the production of magnets, catalytic converters, and other critical components. They are, however, geologically limited and geographically concentrated, with China accounting for the majority of global production and rare earth reserves.
Because of this reliance on a single supplier, as well as trade disputes and environmental concerns, efforts have been made to discover and use rare earth resources in other countries, including North America, Europe, and Africa. But how much do we truly know about known rare earth reserves and their ability to meet future demand?
According to the most recent USGS statistics, global reserves of rare earth oxides (REOs) totaled around 120 million metric tons (MT) at the end of 2020. This assessment takes into account both proven and probable rare earth reserves, which are defined as “geologically demonstrated resources that can be extracted economically and legally using existing technology under current economic and market conditions.” The USGS cautions, however, that “not all rare earth reserves will become mines” and that “proven rare earth reserves are a changing target,” as new discoveries, technological breakthroughs, and market shifts can all alter their classification and assessment. As a result, the actual supply of rare earth may differ from these forecasts, particularly over time.
The possible lifespan of rare earth reserves
To calculate the possible lifespan of currently confirmed rare earth reserves, divide global REO production by annual consumption. According to the USGS, global REO output in 2020 is expected to be over 210,000 MT, with China accounting for more than 70% of the total. The annual consumption of REOs in 2020 is expected to be around 180,000 MT, with permanent magnets (43%), catalysts (23%), and phosphors (11%). Based on these estimates, current proved reserves may endure for approximately 570 years, assuming no new discoveries, no technological breakthroughs, and no changes in consumption trends. This estimate, however, is highly questionable because it does not account for anticipated adjustments in supply and demand, geopolitical circumstances, environmental legislation, or other factors that may affect rare earth availability and accessibility.
Governments, business organizations, and academic institutions have started a variety of programs to map, investigate, and assess rare earth reserves around the world in order to enhance the quality and reliability of rare earth resource data. The United States Department of Energy (DOE), for example, has started a comprehensive initiative to encourage the development of a domestic rare earth supply chain, from mining to processing to production. The initiative provides support for research and development, pilot-scale testing, and commercialization of novel technologies that have the potential to minimize the cost, time, and environmental effect of rare earth manufacturing. The DOE also works with other government agencies, such as the Department of Military, to identify vital rare earth elements for national security and defense.
Based on current production and consumption rates, the current confirmed rare earth reserves are projected to be roughly 120 million MT of REOs, which may last for around 570 years. This estimate, however, is subject to numerous uncertainties and assumptions, and it is likely to alter when new data and circumstances emerge. To ensure a stable and sustainable supply of rare earths, the mining industry must invest in exploration, innovation, and collaboration, as well as collaborate closely with policymakers, investors, and communities to address the economic, social, and environmental challenges associated with rare earth mining and processing.
The environmental effect of obtaining, processing, and disposing of ores and tailings is one of the major issues of rare earth mining. Rare earth ores frequently contain radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium, which can be hazardous to one’s health and safety if not handled appropriately. Furthermore, the use of chemical reagents and solvents in rare earth processing can result in toxic waste and emissions that affect the air, water, and land. As a result, the mining industry is investigating numerous ways and technologies to reduce the environmental imprint of rare earth mining, such as the use of green reagents, water recycling, and the use of closed-loop systems. These measures not only help to reduce the environmental impact of rare earth mining, but also increase its social and economic worth by lowering the costs, risks, and conflicts connected with environmental damage and regulatory compliance.
Another obstacle for rare earth mining is the global market’s geopolitical and economic dynamics. As previously stated, China dominates the rare earth business, both in terms of production and processing, and has utilized its position to influence rare earth prices and supply. This has created a strategic vulnerability for countries like the United States, Japan, and Europe, who rely largely on rare earth imports. Many countries are studying the possibilities of domestic rare earth resources to minimize this reliance, such as the Mountain Pass mine in California, the Mount Weld mine in Western Australia, and the Kvanefjeld project in Greenland. However, harnessing these resources necessitates substantial capital commitment, governmental approval, and social acceptability, and it may take years, if not decades, to become commercially viable. Furthermore, the diversity and quality of rare earth minerals varies greatly among regions, and not all rare earth reserves are viable for mining and processing.
As a result, the mining sector must take a long-term, strategic, and collaborative approach to rare earth mining that balances the economic, environmental, and social goals of long-term growth. This strategy should include the following components:
- Investing in exploration and research to discover and assess new rare earth resources, as well as to improve the accuracy and reliability of reserve estimations.
- Creating innovative and efficient technologies and techniques to reduce the environmental impact of rare earth mining and processing, as well as to boost rare earth recovery and recycling from end-of-life products.
- Engaging with local people and stakeholders to ensure that the advantages and dangers of rare earth mining are distributed equitably, and that the area’s cultural, social, and natural values are recognized and preserved.
- Collaboration with other firms, governments, and international organizations to share information, best practices, and resources, as well as to create a transparent, predictable, and stable rare earths market.
- By taking this strategy, the mining industry can assist meet the growing demand for rare earth while avoiding negative impacts and maximizing beneficial outcomes.
Mining industry to discover strategies to ensure a steady rare earth supply
As the demand for rare earth elements grows, it is critical for the mining industry to discover strategies to ensure a steady supply. Exploration and evaluation of new sources of rare earths outside of China is one of the primary initiatives. Exploration and investment in rare earth projects in North America, Europe, and Africa have increased in recent years. For example, the Department of Energy in the United States has supported various research programs to investigate the potential of rare earths in coal and coal-related materials, as well as brines and clays. Wyoming has also formed a Rare Earth Element Task Force to identify and promote the development of the state’s rare earth resources. Several projects are currently underway in Europe to recover rare earths from secondary sources such as mine tailings, electronic trash, and industrial waste. Several African countries, including Madagascar, Malawi, and South Africa, are investigating their rare earth resources, despite considerable infrastructure and regulatory difficulties.
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Exploration and development of new sources of rare earths, on the other hand, is a difficult and costly process involving numerous stages, ranging from geophysical surveys and drilling through mineralogical analysis and metallurgical testing. Furthermore, the economic viability of rare earth mining is determined by a number of criteria, including ore grade and tonnage, site accessibility and infrastructure, energy and water needs for processing, and market prices and demand for rare earths. To handle the problems and opportunities of rare earth mining, the mining sector must adopt a scientific and systematic approach to evaluating the possibility of new rare earth reserves, as well as engage with other stakeholders such as regulators, investors, and communities.
Rare earths are often mined as rare earth oxides.
Another major part of rare earth mining is the processing and production of rare earth elements into usable goods. Rare earths are often mined as Rare earth oxides, which must be separated and purified into individual elements before they can be used in diverse applications. This process requires complex chemical and physical processes like leaching, solvent extraction, precipitation, and calcination, which generate enormous volumes of waste and emissions. As a result, the mining sector is investigating numerous technologies and methodologies to increase the efficiency, cost, and environmental performance of rare earth processing. Green reagents, such as organic acids and enzymes, are being used by certain industries to substitute conventional acids and solvents, which can minimize the process’s energy consumption and waste output. Others are implementing closed-loop systems that recirculate the water and reagents while recovering byproducts such as gypsum and phosphogypsum for future use.
Furthermore, the mining sector is investigating the possibility of recycling rare earths from end-of-life devices such as magnets, batteries, and fluorescent lamps. Recycling not only reduces the need for virgin materials, but it also reduces the waste and emissions involved with the manufacturing of new rare earths. However, recycling rare earths is difficult due to the complexity and diversity of the products, the low concentration and purity of the rare earths, and the absence of recycling standardization and infrastructure. As a result, the mining industry must work with manufacturers, recyclers, and legislators to develop and execute effective and sustainable recycling systems for rare earths.
The mining sector faces considerable challenges and opportunities in ensuring a sustainable supply of rare earths. The existing confirmed rare earth reserves are anticipated to last several decades or centuries, depending on assumptions and uncertainties. As a result, the mining sector must seek and analyze new sources of rare earths, as well as enhance the efficiency, cost, and environmental performance of rare earth mining and processing. The mining industry can help meet the growing demand for rare earths by taking a strategic, collaborative, and long-term approach.