Rare earths are crucial to the tech and defense industries. They have unique magnetic, heat-resistant, and phosphorescent properties that no other elements have, meaning that they are often non-substitutable materials in renewable energy, electric vehicle, smartphone and military asset production.
Rare-earth elements (REE), or rare earths, are 17 critical mineral elements that are relatively abundant in the Earth’s crust, but are considered rare due to their low concentration and the difficulty in exploiting them. Used in a variety of consumer products, such as cell phones and electric car motors, as well as defense systems, wind turbines, and healthcare equipment, they have become vital to the modern economy and national security.
According to Global Market Insights, Inc., the REE market is expected to reach $19.8 billion by 2026, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.8% from 2020 to 2026.
HOW ARE RARE EARTHS USED?
Rare earths are necessary elements in technologies we use on a daily basis as well as the production and growth of green energy technologies, including wind turbine magnets, solar cells, and electric vehicles.
Electrification and climate change technologies are undoubtedly here to stay as we implement more and more sustainable energy sources around the world. With government regulation (push) and consumer demand (pull), demand will only increase.
Standard configurations of all electrification processes across all markets (electric vehicles, wind turbines, drones, etc.) include a combination of batteries and electric motors. Battery technologies are diverse and innovation causes them to change rapidly, so it is hard for manufacturers to choose one consistently. Electric motors, however, are consistent and their substitutability is low because the permanent magnets used to create them all require REEs.
How are rare earths mined?
Rare earths are usually mined using open pit methods. Once extracted, the REEs are separated into individual elements in order to be used commercially or processed into compounds.
How do rare earths impact us?
Rare earths are already beginning to play a role in the reduction of greenhouse gases, as they are necessary for various forms of green energy technology. As we continue to expand these technologies, our reliance on fossil fuels will be reduced.
REEs are also key elements used in common digital devices, including televisions, cameras, and audio devices. Our ability to innovate faster, smaller, and lighter products relies on the use of REEs.
The current REE supply will not be able to meet 50% of the forecasted EV demand within 10-15 years, let alone any other end markets. As such, the market is supply-constrained and will likely result in escalating prices. There is increased interest from numerous federal agencies and private companies, as well as both political parties, to create margins of safety and incentives for diversifying American supplies of rare earths.
Where are rare earths found?
Rare earths exist throughout the earth, but they are rarely concentrated enough to make mining viable. China has been the world’s largest consumer and producer of rare earths in recent decades, supplying more than 80% of rare earths globally. As such, the need for the US to decrease its dependence on imports in order to mitigate its vulnerability to foreign government actions and natural disasters has become apparent. The stalled supply chain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is one such example. Presidential executive orders have been issued in December 2017 and September 2020 to emphasize the importance of increasing efforts to establish a domestic supply chain.
WhAT IS SCANDIUM?
Scandium, which requires different processing methods from typical REEs, has substantial uses and benefits, most commonly as an alloy with Aluminum to reduce the weight of vehicle or aircraft frames by as much as 30% while simultaneously increasing its strength by up to 40%. Even a composition of 0.5% Scandium can result in significant improvements in a product or project.
Additionally, Scandium is used in solid oxide fuel cells, which are used in a variety of applications but most notably in generating power for satellites, vehicles, and even buildings. Though various types of fuel cells exist, solid oxide fuel cells have the greatest potential thanks to their tremendous electrical efficiencies and low maintenance costs.
Bloomberg estimates that Scanium demand could grow to reach 1,800 tons per year by 2035, representing a 51-fold increase or a $6.5 billion market at the 20-year average price. If electric vehicles increase to the projected estimate of 30 million by 2030, demand for Scandium could then surge to 5,250 tons per year, the equivalent of a 150-time increase based on just a 2% Scandium Oxide-Aluminum alloy in each electric vehicle.