Understanding Rare Earth Materials
What are rare Earth materials?
Termed rare due to scarcity in distribution, rare earths refer to 17 metals: the 15 lanthanides, scandium, and yttrium. Rare earths are used in many industries including optics, defense, automotive, and medical, along with a vast quantity of consumer products from power tools to smart phones. Due to advancements in electronics and other technologies, consumption of rare earths has drastically increased since efficient separation methods were first introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Currently, world demand for rare earths is around 134,000 tons annually, with an expected growth to 180,000 tons annually by 2012.
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How are rare Earth materials used in optics?
Within the optics industry, rare earths are quickly growing in importance. Lanthanum is used in many high index glasses; high index glass, when combined with other glass materials, improves dispersion and is utilized in many achromats and imaging lenses to increase efficiency and improve image quality. Cerium can be found in some of the polishing compounds used in the manufacturing process of optical glass. Many other optical components and electro-optical devices are also affected, such as night-vision goggles and imaging sensors which rely on rare earths including lanthanum, gadolinium, and yttrium.
What is the current status of the rare Earth materials market?
Due to global supply restrictions, the price of rare earth material, found in many optical components, is increasing. As a result, industry-wide price increases are expected for end-user products that include glass made with rare earth material. Edmund Optics is committed to working closely with our supply chain partners and manufacturing facilities in order to continue to offer high quality products at competitive prices.
How long will the current supply scarcity last?
The short-term answer is unknown. Although plans to expand mining outside of China exist, the United States Government Accountability Office estimates it can take anywhere from 7 - 15 years to bring a rare earth mine to full operational status, primarily due to difficulties in licensing and regulations. It is expected to take up to 15 years for the United States to reestablish its rare earth supply chain. Meanwhile, substantial rare earth deposits have also been found elsewhere, including Canada, Australia, Russia, and in the Pacific Ocean, but have yet to make an impact on the rare earth market.
How is Edmund Optics affected?
Like other leading optics companies, Edmund Optics is directly affected by changes in the rare earth market. We utilize rare earths within certain manufacturing processes, with specific coatings, and with specific high index glasses. Due to the uncertainty surrounding rare earth availability, we are expecting the costs of rare earth materials to increase. In addition, there may be additional costs associated with tariffs, especially between the US and China. If your design includes rare earth components, you may experience a price increase. However, Edmund Optics will continue to take the steps needed to limit the impact on product pricing.
How did the scarcity occur?
China currently produces 97 percent of the global supply of rare earths. The Chinese dominance of the rare earth market is fairly recent and up until the mid 1980s, the United States had been the primary producer of rare earths – one time producing over 60 percent of the global supply. Now, many countries are almost entirely dependent on Chinese exports.
As with the monopolization of any market, having a single dominant producer introduces uncertainty regarding the stability of supply and, in turn, price. As the Chinese economy and technological industries increase in growth, China is expected to decrease rare earth exports in order to meet its own rare earth demand. As the global demand begins to outpace global supply, the prices of rare earth materials, which are already increasing due to fears of shortage, will continue to increase, and the need for alternative rare earth sources will continue to grow.
- "REE - Rare Earth Elements and Their Uses." Geology.com. Accessed August 1, 2011. http://geology.com/articles/rare-earth-elements/.
- Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2010.