The periodic table is a thing of beauty

The periodic table is a thing of beauty

The periodic table is a thing of beauty






The periodic table is a thing of beauty, yet we seem to be quite happy to exhaust parts of it before we’ve fully realized its potential. Helium will probably run out within the next 100 years. Gallium and indium are running low. Phosphorus, too, may soon become an “endangered element”.

The latest part of the table to arouse such fears is a block of 17 metals known as the “rare earth elements”. China, which produces most of the world’s supply, is increasingly protective of its deposits, sparking concern over their future availability.

Both the US and European Union have set up initiatives to look at these strategically important metals. It is good to make a fuss – but the issue isn’t one of absolute scarcity, it’s about how we manage resources.

The rare earth elements – or as chemists call them, the lanthanides plus scandium and yttrium – might not be household names, but they are common in every household. They are used in a wider range of consumer goods than any other group of elements due to their unusual electronic, optical and magnetic properties (Haque et al 2014). Rare earth elements are an ever-present part of our lifestyles and in many cases difficult to replace in terms of functionality.

Without lightweight magnets made from alloys of rare earth elements, computer hard-drives and iPod headphones and speakers would be impossible. They color our liquid crystal displays, darken our sunglasses and provide phosphors for low-energy light bulbs and LEDs. They are a vital ingredient in lightweight alloys for aircraft and in catalysts to process crude oil and clean exhaust emissions. Industry uses them in lasers for high-precision manufacturing; hospitals use them for medical imaging. The list goes on.

Rare earth elements are also expected to play a big part in the future. It turns out they are indispensable for a range of urgently needed green energy technologies such as wind turbine generators, low-energy lighting, fuel cells, rechargeable batteries, magnetic refrigeration and hydrogen storage (Haque et al 2014). If any of these technologies is implemented on the scale required to significantly reduce carbon emissions, demand for certain rare earth elements will almost inevitably exceed current supply – and quite probably known reserves.

Which brings us back to the topic of scarcity. Despite their name, rare earth elements are not especially rare – they are thus called because there were few known concentrated deposits of their ores, or “earths”, when they were first discovered. Cerium, the most common, is similar in abundance to copper and more abundant than lead, tin, cadmium, boron, tantalum, germanium and numerous other commonly used elements. Even so, rare earth elements are in short supply.

Of course, elements can’t be made or destroyed except in nuclear processes, so we can’t “run out” of them. Scarcity is largely a political question due to the fact that at least 95 per cent of the global supply originates in China. Accurate data on how much it has and produces is difficult to obtain, but the country is becoming increasingly protective of its resources.

Economists will argue that the market will correct itself: as the price goes up then lower grade ores become viable. This already appears to be happening. The world is scrambling to open up new sources and reopen old ones, such as Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine in California which used to supply the majority of the world’s demand but has been mothballed since 2002 (Atwood, 2013). But it takes several years to start or restart a mine and demand for several rare earth elements – notably neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium.

The economic argument also ignores the environmental cost of accessing lower grade ores, which may outweigh the benefits delivered by the end uses. In any case, price isn’t always a good indicator of scarcity.

The real problem is the way we obtain, use and discard rare earth elements. In our linear economy, getting hold of them depends on finding sufficiently concentrated sources. We then smash the ores out of the ground, expend huge amounts of energy purifying them, use them and then discard them (Atwood, 2013). The concentration of rare earth elements and other precious metals in our waste streams is often higher than in the ore.

We need a different approach to managing the elements: better mining and extraction, more efficient production, sustainable use and planned recovery. The principles of reduce, replace and recycle must be applied at every stage to ensure we utilize rare earth elements efficiently, substitute more common materials where possible and design products to be dismantled and recycled. It may eventually be necessary to reserve key materials for vital applications rather than for short-lived lifestyle goods.

Many industries already carefully recycle their valuable “waste” materials – photographic silver and catalysts from the fine chemicals industry are good examples. We need to adopt those approaches everywhere.

Ultimately, the scarcity of rare earth elements comes down to our own short-sightedness and the apparent low costs of business as usual – dig it up, use it, and discard it. If we value modern society and want to build a better future, business as usual is no longer an option. We must treasure our rare resources.


Taken from New Scientist magazine (

Although many minerals are taken to be fundamental to economic development and national growth, a smaller group of substances are termed to be critical minerals. However, the criticality of various minerals, as a matter to note, becomes both dynamic and specifically contextual. Taking a mineral as critical in one country may not be the same to the other (Chao, et al 2013). As a matter of fact, the criticality of any mineral has to change with market conditions and other ongoing developments in technology.

Minerals have been considered to be important to mankind all industrial times and their discovery has led to new innovations. The innovations therein bring step changes in technology which later brings demand for other minerals which could have been underutilized in the past. With new technologies emerging, and the existing ones evolving, there are new demand patterns for shifting raw materials. The raw materials demand has realized notable increase due to their specific chemical and physical properties. The raw materials are therefore referred to as technology metals or else can be described as strategic raw materials.

The increase in demand for strategic raw materials and technological metals has gained a momentum in the recent years because of growing concern. The concern has been because of transparency and also sustainability of their supply (Chao, et al 2013). There are environmental factors that affect supply of the metals such as geological scarcity and local environmental factors. . Other factors are economical such as production efficiency, diversity of supply, processing technologies, and also trade policies of a certain country.

As an example, the supply of flake graphite which is used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries is much dominated by china. In addition, China boasts of dominating the rare earth market as it produces almost eighty five percent of the world’s rare earths supply. More so, the nation has a metal separation capacity of 95% of the world’s rare earths. The rare earths metals seems to be much complex because of its broad range of applications and the ratio of rare earth’s produced and consumed inconsistency.

According to Kingsnorth, rare earths and graphite are different from various natural resources because they are not classified as commodities. They are said to be customer specific. Additionally, rare earth markets and graphite market do not exist in a market’s normal understanding. This is because there are no exchanges of trading publicly and no referencing of the results (Förstner, et al 2012). The supply of rare earth oxides is a long term contract with their metals and oxides being sold by the concerned trading companies or they are taken to be part of the larger integrated supply chain. The production of graphite is done as per the customer’s specifications and s also typically supplied on long term contracts.

So as to have a sustainable supply of the earth metals, it means that there should be more research and development opportunities which will lead to new technological developments. With proper technological developments, this will equate to an increased demand for technological metals. Additionally, there may be chances for manufacturers not investing in R&D technology metals if there is instability in supply. Good caring of the earth metals means that there is sustainability of new innovations and thus more technological advancements.


Haque, Nawshad, et al. “Rare earth elements: Overview of mining, mineralogy, uses, sustainability and environmental impact.” Resources 3.4 (2014): 614-635.

Atwood, David A., ed. The rare earth elements: fundamentals and applications. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Wang, Chao, et al. “Self-healing chemistry enables the stable operation of silicon microparticle anodes for high-energy lithium-ion batteries.” Nature chemistry 5.12 (2013): 1042.

Potter, Russell M., and George R. Rossman. “Desert varnish: the importance of clay minerals.” Science 196.4297 (1977): 1446-1448.

Förstner, Ulrich, and Gottfried TW Wittmann. Metal pollution in the aquatic environment. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.