What are Rare Earth Elements and what’s their strategic significance?

In the periodic table, rare earth elements (REE) are a set of 17 chemical elements. ‘Rare earths’ is a misnomer as contrary to what the name suggests, these elements are not rare and are present in abundance in the Earth’s crust. However, finding them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction is unusual.

Their unique magnetic, electrochemical, and luminescent properties make them an irreplaceable material from the world of technology. The world-famous mobile phone brand, Apple uses around eight REEs to manufacture an iPhone. REEs have wide applicability in the manufacturing of mobile phone components ranging from the screen, speaker, to circuit. They have an extensive range of application. REEs are used in the manufacturing of cell phones, medical equipment, electronic gadgets as well as in advanced transportation systems, defence, environmental mitigation, clean energy transition, computer networks, etc.

The surge in demand for REEs was seen in the mid of 1960s, when colour televisions forayed into the market. Europium was the most essential material needed for the production of colour images in televisions. During that time, the Mountain Pass mine had also started producing europium, positioning the US as the leading REE producer, globally. As per the United States Geological Survey (USGS) data, China, Brazil, Vietnam, and Russia account for the largest estimated REE reserves. China holds around 37% of the total REE reserves, while Brazil accounts for around 17.5%, Vietnam holds 18.33% and Russia holds about 10% of the global reserves.

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