General Studies Paper 1 (Geography of India & World)
Question:- 167. What are rare-earth minerals and how are they obtained? Throw some light on the geopolitics behind the availability and accumulation of rare- earth minerals around the globe. Answer in 250 words.
Jan 17, 2023
Answer:-

 INTRODUCTION:

Rare- earth elements are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table in addition to scandium and yttrium that show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides.

These minerals have unique magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties and thus are used in many modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, health care, national defense, clean energy technologies etc. Futuristic technologies like high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy etc. need these REEs.

 

 

BODY PARAGRAPH-1:

The rare earth elements occur at very low concentrations in most massive rock formations, and sources of the rare earth elements have been found on every continent as well as on the ocean floor. The geological challenge is to find ores with sufficient concentrations of rare earths to make it economically feasible to mine and process them.

The difficulty of separating and purifying the rare earth elements makes their production very expensive. Mining of rare earth metals, as with all metals, begins by digging rock or sand from the ground, separating out the valuable ore from the waste rock (tailings), and then refining the ore to separate out the metal. But producing the rare earth metals, unlike other metals, requires an extensive additional stage where the various rare earths are separated from each other. This final stage of production is difficult and costly. The similar reactivity is what makes it so hard to separate them from one another.

 

 

BODY PARAGRAPH-2:

Though they are used in very small amounts, their significance to the defense sector and to emerging technologies, combined with China’s control over the majority of the market, has given the rare earth elements outsized geopolitical relevance.

The relative scarcity of rare earth minerals has been identified as a major hurdle in the world’s transition away from fossil fuels. China and parts of Southeast Asia dominate both the mining and processing of rare earths.

  1. 1. China contains roughly a third of the world’s reserves of rare earth elements. It has over time acquired global domination of rare earths by creating processing infrastructure in rare earth minerals. It has also acquired mines in Africa for elements such as Cobalt. It produces 60% of the rare earths the world needs. The dominant share of processed Rare Earths lies with China.
  2. Since 2010, when China curbed shipments of Rare Earths to Japan, the US, and Europe, production units have come up in Australia, and the US along with smaller units in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

 

  1. 2. The US and 10 partners — Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission — have come together to form the Mineral Security Partnership. The alliance is seen as primarily focused on evolving an alternative to China. The goal of the MSP is to ensure that critical minerals are being produced, processed, and recycled in a manner that supports the ability of countries to realise the full economic development benefit of their geological endowments. Specifically, the MSP focuses on critical minerals that are inputs for electric vehicles and advanced batteries. In the group, countries like Australia and Canada have reserves and also the technology to extract them, and countries like Japan have the technology to process REEs.

 

  1. 3. The largest known deposit of rare earth minerals in Europe has been discovered in Sweden’s Arctic in January 2023, with potential to help the continent break free from China’s dominance on the market for the resources.

 

  1. 4. In India, monazite is the principal source of rare earths and thorium. Though India has 6% of the world’s rare earth reserves, it only produces 1% of global output, and meets most of its requirements of such minerals from China.

 

  1. 5. In 2011, the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA) obtained a licence to mine polymetallic sulphides in the Southwest Indian Ridge (SWIR) – in the Indian Ocean just south of Madagascar.

 

  1. 6. If India is not able to explore and produce these minerals, it will have to depend on a handful of countries, including China, to power its energy transition plans to electric vehicles. That will be similar to our dependence on a few countries for oil.

 

CONCLUSION:


The war in Ukraine has demonstrated just how inadvisable over-dependence on a single supplier can be. Russia’s dominance in the European gas market turned into a geopolitical nightmare in the space of a few weeks.

Given the applications of rare earths in emerging technologies and as recommended by CII (Confederation of Indian Industries), it is high time that India set up an ‘India Rare Earths Mission’, manned by professionals, like the India Semiconductor Mission and make their exploration a critical component of the Deep Ocean Mission plan of the government.