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Monday, December 6, 2010

Chinese Government's Ban on Exports of Rare Earth Elements causes a Worldwide Shortage

Without Rare Earth Elements (REEs) a lot of the technology found in the 21st century would be impossible. These are things like alternate energy, rare earth magnets used in car’s alternators, computers, TVs and many other examples of modern technology.  The rub and incidentally the demand for REEs are because 97% or the world’s total supply comes from China.  The Chinese government recently cut the level of their exports of REEs by 70 % touching off a worldwide shortage of REEs. Their former chairman Deng Xiaoping said, “If you want rare earths you had better build a factory in China,” he went on to say that China would become the Saudi Arabia of rare earth metals. 
Allanite one of the ores for REEs

The Chinese extract REEs from clay using essentially the same long and tedious process as used for recovering uranium.  However there is so much clay in the world that could contain REEs it remains to be seen if the Chinese are able to maintain their monopoly.

Many conglomerates also contain REEs associated with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium as they are seen in a quartz pebble conglomerate at Elliot Lake, Ontario or the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Anywhere in the world where uranium is mined REEs are likely to be found associated with the uranium ore.

A pile of monazite sand another ore of REEs

In that atmosphere the worldwide rush is on to discover new sources of REEs.  According to Al Shafsky CEO of Pele Mountain Resources of Toronto his mining company is developing the largest known deposit of REEs in Canada at their Eco Ridge Mine in Elliot Lake, Ontario.  Shafsky’s interest in the Elliot Lake mines is actually uranium with REEs as a byproduct.  Because they are able to be extracted from uranium ore by the same process REEs provide a valuable byproduct with a known market.

Piles of REE oxides
Of the estimated 7,000 producing mines in the world there are very few producing REEs at the moment with most of them in mainland China accounting for 97% of the world’s total production. The other 2% is found in so-called mineral sands that are produced in many parts of the world where it is found in beaches usually as sand sized grains of monazite or other rare earth minerals.  The remaining 1% is produced in Canada mainly from the conglomerates around Elliot Lake, Ontario as a byproduct of uranium mining.  The CEE salts are leached from its ore using the same process as that used for the recovery of uranium the CEE salts are a byproduct. They are all leached with low molal sulfuric acid to recover the metal content.  

A photomicrograph of a REE Magnet

The best way of finding deposits of REEs in the field is with a Geiger or Scintillation counter the same as is used for finding thorium or uranium. REEs are always associated with these elements.   A likely place to look for these elements is the conglomerate deposits of the American West, wherever uranium or vanadium mines were located during the mid-20th century.  Most of the uranium in the United States was produced from mines in Nebraska and Wyoming although there were enough uranium mines in the other western states.  

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