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.
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.
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.
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.