Agriculture

Top 4 Rare Earth Minerals in 2023

These four rare earth minerals may have a larger impact on the future of humanity than we would like to acknowledge.

Image: Aerial view of lithium fields in the Atacama desert in Chile, South America. Credit: Shutterstock / Freedom_wanted

The distribution of minerals on earth is highly uneven, with large pockets of a given element clustered in a few locations. That same element is usually almost impossible to come by anywhere else.

This is even more challenging in the case of rarer minerals, which are critical for one industry or another.

You have probably never heard of the rare reddish mineral, monazite. However, monazite has extensive industrial applications in areas ranging from x-ray imaging and lasers to glass glazing and automobile paint coating.

Almost all known pockets of monazite ore are in India, which means if India were to halt the mining and export of this rare earth mineral today, many sectors and individuals would be in trouble—many of which may have never even heard of monazite before.

Below is a list of more critical minerals with industrial applications which are largely deposited within the political borders of one or a handful of countries.

Lithium (Chile, Australia)

The soft silvery metal was discovered at the turn of the 19th century, though its use was limited to pharmaceuticals and glassworks until the early 2000s, when rechargeable lithium-ion batteries hit the market.

The demand for lithium rose exponentially with the rise of electric vehicles, making lithium not only a highly sought-after mineral, but also a commodity of high geopolitical importance.

The price of lithium skyrocketed from under USD100,000 per metric ton in 2018 to over USD550,000 by 2022, ushering in a period known as the “great lithium boom” in metallurgical circles.

Chile owns the world’s largest lithium deposits, but it still lags behind Australia in terms of production.

“World output was 737,000 tonnes of Lithium Carbonate Equivalent (LCE) in 2022 and is estimated to reach 964,000 tonnes in 2023 and 1,167,000 tonnes in 2024,” according to Reuters. This indicates a 40% market growth in 2 years, which will likely boost Chile’s income from the export of minerals and—more importantly—increase the Latin American country’s geopolitical significance.

Cobalt (Indonesia, the DRC)

Cobalt is another metal in high demand in the age of renewables. In addition to its use in rechargeable batteries, cobalt is widely used in ferromagnetic technologies such as generators.

“Cobalt is also used to make airbags in automobiles [and] catalysts for the petroleum and chemical industries,” according to the US Geological Survey, which also mentions the uses of cobalt in inks, dyes, pigments, and varnishes.

Surprisingly, cobalt prices have not soared since 2020. Indeed, the metal’s price “sank to two-year lows below USD15 a lb in May, a drop of 65% from May 2022,” reported Reuters in August, 2023. This is partly because of Chinese investments in Indonesia as a rising supplier of Cobalt to the global market.

Indonesia, which holds some of the largest cobalt deposits on earth, has recently become the world’s second largest supplier, after the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has long dominated the market.

With the support of Chinese industrialists and financiers nearby, Indonesia is continuing to emerge as a cobalt powerhouse, although China’s increasing influence on the supply chain of this critical mineral has worried some Western commentators.

Tantalum (the DRC, Brazil)

This little known metal has contributed a great deal to our modern way of life, as it finds application in aircraft engines, surgical implements, and electronic components.

Humanity would be much worse off in terms of health, traveling, and entertainment without Tantalum. We need just under 2,000 metric tons of the rare metal per year, and nearly half of it comes from the DRC.

As tantalum is almost exclusively used in high-tech industries and we live in innovative times, demand for the rare metal is going up at the forecasted rate of 5% per year. So much so that the supply may not keep up with demand for long.

This puts more emphasis on the necessity of tantalum mining in countries other than the DRC with significant reserves, such as Rwanda and Brazil.

Investors such as JX Nippon Mining & Metals have noticed as much. The Japanese mining giant has decided to invest in tantalum production in Brazil’s Mibra mine, which is one of our best bets to avoid a serious bottleneck situation in the supply of the rare metal.

The DRC, meanwhile, continues to be the biggest supplier of tantalum in the foreseeable future due to its sizable reserves. To make matters more complicated, alleged human right violations in the DRC’s mining sector have discouraged some importers to do business with DRC and even Rwandan suppliers.

“The UK-based technology company Circular has designed a blockchain tracing system to help determine the origins of tantalum produced in Rwanda,” according to the Investment News Network, which may solve the ethical issue of mining.

Platinum Group Metals (South Africa)

Also known as the platinoids, this group of minerals includes six noble metals on the periodic table which are clustered together due to their similar metallurgical qualities and the fact that they are obtained from the same ore.

Platinum group metals (PGMs) are among the rarest elements in existence, but they also have wide industrial and medical applications.

PGMs—including platinum itself as well as palladium and rhodium—are widely used as catalysts in chemical and petrochemical plants as well as in certain oncological and cardiovascular drugs.

Meanwhile, the increasing use of PGMs as catalysts in green hydrogen energy systems means that the demand for these rare earth metals is going up.

South Africa holds the world’s largest—and perhaps only—sizable PGM reserves (63,000 metric tons), while Russia, the second largest supplier, has only 5,500 tons of proven reserves. Simply put, the world does not have enough PGMs.

A 2023 scholarly article by Tang, Peng and colleagues published in the Journal of Environmental Chemical Engineering found that “the global demand for platinum-group metals (PGMs), including Pt, Pd, and Rh, far exceeds the supply of natural resources”.

The study further cited problems such as “the scarce and inhomogeneous distribution of the resources, high production costs, and serious environmental risks,” and concluded that recycling of spent PGM catalysts can be a good strategy to keep pace with the increasing demand for PGMs—a strategy that also applies to all rare earth minerals mentioned in this list, especially Lithium.

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